We spoke with Priest Sergei Ermolaev, rector of the Church of St. John the Baptist in Vologda, on the ability not only to fast with our tongues and stomachs but also with our ears, eyes and hearts.
“True fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander, falsehood and perjury. If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God.” The Lenten Triodion is categorical. Speaking on categorical matters, Fr. Sergei Ermolaev recommends an effective approach (from his experience and conviction) from which the qualities that are vital to us Christians are attained—and not only during the fasts.
—Fr. Sergei, I suggest we talk about the reality we face every day: the madness of this world and feigned Christian madness. “Thou didst embrace the poverty of Christ, and today sit at the feast of immortality. Having exposed the madness of the world through thy feigned madness, and humbly bearing thy cross, thou didst receive strength from God.” We praise Blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg with these words, though they may appeal to all the saints as well. However, as an honest reflection in the mirror and practice show, they don’t apply to us. How would you personally characterize the madness of this world?
—It is impossible to enumerate everything, otherwise we will be drowned in muddy waters. But what comes to my mind is the maniacal passion for news, the morbid longing for hot, fresh news. Even if this has nothing to do with you, your people and country, even if it is just a sick hippopotamus in Zimbabwe, we will wildly savor TV or internet news instead of spending our time sensibly.
—Are there really hippopotami in Zimbabwe?
—We don’t care! Take a reference book and look if you are interested. This habit of being in the know of the latest news is dispiriting. How much precious time we kill for the sake of pure fluff. Meanwhile, these things are dangerous because they have a devastating effect not only on your mind but also on your soul.
—If I am not mistaken, it was Metropolitan Mark (Arnt) of Berlin and Germany who said, “Blessed is he who doesn’t watch or listen to the latest news.” Does this concern only our days when we are surrounded by the prattling of the media, or...?
—Or… That is an age-old phenomenon. Let us recall: For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing (Acts 17:21). There is nothing new under the sun (cf. Eccles. 1:9). The same passions have been boosted by science and technology. The ways of communicating unnecessary information have been increased many times over. This “blah-blah” has become louder.
—Why is it dangerous?
—Above all else, because of lack of concentration. Our mind is wandering all the time as it is, our thoughts are constantly far away and we are unable to focus on anything. It’s the wandering of the mind. We receive some news willy-nilly. Then we begin to turn it over in our minds. And next the well-known scheme works:
All the points of the development of sin are present in us. Someone hears some news, begins to think about it, gets annoyed, angry, and starts to judge others. As a result we find ourselves in a state when we are unable to pray. How can we pray if we are annoyed, angry and condemn others? I know this by experience. Something irritates you. You need to stand up and pray. You stand up, but there is no prayer, and there is even no strength to start praying. You are in the inferno of your passions. At first you have to calm your soul down so that peace can reign in it again. And you are absolutely unable to pray until then. That is the danger: while we divert ourselves, our spiritual life stops.
“Now that we have freedom of speech, we want to keep silence more and more”
—In this case, someone’s soul, instead of following its natural bent, its mission, and soaring into the celestial realms, soils itself, grows fat, and resembles a “bag full of news”, or the “husks” that the Prodigal Son dreamed of when he lived with the swine (cf. Lk. 15:16). Actually, it resembles a pig.
—Quite right. It is fluff that is detrimental to your soul and makes your body and soul slide downwards. Idle talking, idle hearing, fattened idleness and filling yourself with some hellish vacuity. You have said excellent words about pigs. Elder Paisios the Hagiorite suggested dividing people into two categories: flies and bees. Bees collect the best things—honey and pollen—and share sweet things with people. As for flies, they get into garbage dumps, and even when they land on clean places, those places get poisoned. If you fill your soul with news, what will it be fragrant with? What can we speak about with someone who has just watched a lot of news reports and read a lot of the yellow press? He can only talk about the things he is filled with. He can’t talk about lofty things.
—Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh (Mt. 12:34).
—True. But if someone’s heart is filled with filth? St. Silouan of Mt. Athos said, “If you want pure prayer, do not watch or listen to all kinds of news.”
—Why this attitude towards news? Why is it that out of almost all the news, ninety-nine percent comes from “sewage”? Why not promote positive news stories?
—I read the following the other day: “Now that we have freedom of speech, we want to keep silence more and more.” How can we speak about freedom in our world which is enslaved by sin? This “freedom” leads to spiritual slavery. If our media are free, why is any positive news blocked? All we hear is either blood, scandals, and other slops or flattery, fawning and boot-licking. This is what such “freedom” is about. The demand for such negative news is aggressively cultivated in society, and speaking about positive or necessary things is not considered “appropriate” and “comme il faut.”
On how I croak at God
There is such thing as procrastination. It is a habit of delaying an important task by focusing on less urgent but more pleasant and easier actions instead. Someone has to carry out a task which is difficult and not very interesting. And he keeps putting it off till the last moment. Blessed Augustine compares this state with a raven croaking: “Caw, caw!”—“Tomorrow, tomorrow!”
—Some say: “When I am eighty, I may go to church. But leave me alone for the time being! There are so many interesting things going in the world…” Caw, caw!
—Yes. But someone’s strength is on the wane. The trouble is that as a result we don’t know God. We very often feel fervor in our souls after reading the Gospel or the Holy Fathers: “From this day on I will perform real prayer!” I may pray for one, two or three days, but nothing special happens. “The Lord doesn’t hear me!” And my spiritual life begins to ebb away. I believe there has been a wrong approach here in the first place: “Now I will start praying, and the Lord must give me something for this, some grace that I will sense physically.” But in reality the Lord rewards us for the state of our hearts and not for our labors. The problem is that we haven’t gotten to know God yet. The Lord often fulfils our desires provided they don’t contradict common sense and are not of this kind: “I wish my neighbor’s cow would die / his car would break down / my mother-in-law would choke.” An acquaintance of mine recently visited Diveyevo Convent. Though he was skeptical about this, he walked along the holy canal of the Mother of God and read all the necessary prayers. And much to his amazement (and maybe shock, in the good sense) he realized that he needed nothing from God except one thing: to always be with Him. He said: “Lord, don’t give me anything. Take all worldly goods from me, but please don’t take the joy of communion with Thee from me.” And after that I heard the same story from another person. You see, if you earnestly make efforts to change yourself, if you sincerely turn to God, then it is an absolutely different “radio station” with absolutely different “news reports.”
—Yes, the glad tidings of the Gospel. Do we really need any other news?
To escape from bedlam through fasting
—Fr. Sergei, take our Orthodox communities. I have noticed that special and morbid attention is given to news associated with miracles. I believe you have dealt with this as a priest. It’s when someone is interested in having as many miracles as possible rather than in reforming himself in Christ. Does this interest have the same nature as secular, scandalous news?
—Of course. It’s the same nature, the same desire to focus on outward things instead of improving yourself. On coming to the Church, people change their appearances: women replace their jeans with skirts and cover hair with headscarves, and the men get ponytails and a stern look. But you can’t reshape your soul easily. We are all terrible hypocrites. We are afraid to admit this to ourselves. We are so unctuous and unwilling to demonstrate our shortcomings. I can show them to my close ones at home and can snap at them. But if there is a stranger in our house, then God forbid! What will others think of me? But we don’t care what God thinks of us.
Alas, we don’t change. We try and make some sort of substitutions. And it’s the same story with news: we replace one kind of news with another, although both are of the same nature. Thus we are only chewing a different cud.
In my life I have tried many kinds of food: tasty, unsavory, Lenten, and so on. As I ate it I didn’t acquire any virtues, didn’t become more abstinent or less irritable. But whenever I denied myself something, I would notice that the passions are not all-powerful and that God can help us overcome them.
—Can we, from the experience of abstaining from meat and dairy produce, suggest that people treat the latest news as part of fasting?
—Surely! This is what fasting is about. This is the other side of fasting. There is fasting associated with our diets and there is fasting associated with entertainment. And that is not all. There are also other facets. But this superficiality is something we definitely should deny ourselves during the fast. There can be no fast without this. And, besides, it is not the meat and dairy products we stop eating over the period of the fast—it is the poison you must never drink if you want to be physically and spiritually healthy and not to be registered in our secular “bedlam” for good.
—As for news stories, you can give them up easily.
—It’s definitely possible, though not easy. I checked it myself: In the first days of the fast it is somewhat difficult, but then you discover that books exist in the world. You begin to give more attention to your children, play with them and take care of them. Your look becomes conscious. And I am sorry every time the fast is over. What is the purpose of the fast? We have reached a certain level. And I feel I make no progress without fasting. But once the fast begins again, I make my inner spiritual work more intensive. The fast has slightly pushed me up half a step. If I resume my former life after the end of the fast, I will fall again. We are called to be not “like everyone else.” Our task is to perceive our life as an ascent to God. Fasting helps a great deal, while the thirst for news does not. This is what our feigned madness is like. At least it that is how it should be.