In the consciousness of ancient Christians the fast was very closely linked to the virtue of mercy. And no wonder: what else but a call for mercy is the Gospel lesson that we hear at the Liturgy on the Sunday of the Last Judgment:
Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungred, and ye gave Me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me in: naked, and ye clothed Me: I was sick, and ye visited Me: I was in prison, and ye came unto Me (Mt. 25:34-36).
Obviously, if we are abstinent, perform the labors of repentance and prayer but don’t perform acts of mercy and don’t acquire at least the rudiments of this virtue in our hearts, our fasting doesn’t yield genuine fruits. For we hear how exactly the Lord says with regard to His answer at the Last Judgment—He speaks of neither abstinence, nor repentance, nor prayer.
Do you remember the words, Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Mt. 5:48)? When does the Lord say this? When He lists the manifestations of a loving heart that His disciples and followers should have. Indeed there is nothing else in which we can truly imitate or become similar to Him—neither in purity, nor in holiness, to say nothing of omnipotence and wisdom; but only in love for the people He created—our brothers and sisters—in compassion and mercy towards them. It is love and mercy that make us like Him so much that we hear the words, That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven (Mt. 5:45).
Today the fast is too often understood as someone’s “private affair”, “making efforts to improve” and “growth time”. And in some sense it is so; meanwhile, if no one except us feels the benefit of the fast, what is it worth? Is it a rarity in our days when during the fast a Christian spends much more money on Lenten fare than he usually spends on non-fasting food, making up for the absence of dairy products, meat and fish by filling his menu with “sea food”, which isn’t even mentioned in the Typicon and devoting much more time to cooking Lenten dishes than he otherwise gives to cooking in the interim between fasts? In contrast, in ancient times the reverse of abstinence was the custom when Christians by denying themselves something would share their food with the have-nots…
And is there anyone who doesn’t know this state of irritation and bitterness that accompany not only a genuinely strict fast but also quite a sparing one? There is annoyance and hard-heartedness, which makes outsiders look at us with skepticism and disappointment, unable to understand “what we need this for” and “why we are like that.”
Therefore, on no account should we forget during Great Lent that striving to acquire a merciful heart is one of its key elements.
But the problem is that abstinence also requires strenuous effort, and it is extremely hard to preserve a state of constant repentance; besides which, prayer presupposes extremely difficult work. But acquiring a merciful heart is even a more difficult task: there are so many impediments in our way. They are many… But if we don’t overcome them, we will never reach our goal and be able on earth to glorify the Risen Christ with pure hearts (Sticheron in the 6th tone at the beginning of the Midnight Paschal service, before the procession).
We are called to perfection, yet our own glaring imperfection and that of those around us is so evident! In the world and in our neighbors we see so many things that deserve criticism, provoke our indignation, and often even fear! We see, feel and worry; and these feelings and apprehension make our hearts embittered, cool it, and make it anything but merciful.
And what should we do with this? With such hearts our prayer (no matter what we are praying about) is reduced to “sowing seeds on rocky ground”, as St. Isaac the Syrian said. No matter how hard we strive to get closer to the Lord, we feel terrible estrangement and even separation from Him. And no wonder. As Archimandrite Aimilianos (Vafeidis; 1934–2019), a holy elder and abbot of Simonopetra Monastery, wrote:
“If you can’t contain someone else’s interests and this limited world, how will you contain the infinite and uncontainable God?”
A drop of water wears away the stone, even a hard and unyielding one. Likewise, the heart, however cold and callous, yields when we work with it and make efforts (even if we are cast down and despondent) without abandoning our aseticism, continuously asking the Lord to bless our labors.
And one of our primary tasks is to try and overcome judgment, though it may seem unavoidable, since not only have all… sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23)—everybody continues sinning without stopping. But here is the laconic yet amazingly effective advice of St. Anatoly the Younger (Potapov; 1855—1922) of Optina, filled with wisdom and simplicity:
“Have pity, and you will never judge.”
True, it is hard not to judge someone who seems to be strong, famed, successful, threatening and humiliating of you when he behaves improperly. But once you have understood how weak and unhappy he is, what fate he is preparing for himself by his unseemly acts, you come to realize that what he deserves is not judgment but pity.
And if we slow down and let this thought develop in our hearts, understanding will be followed by sympathy and compassion, and our hearts will soften.
And it is so important for us to soften our hearts!
Why else are they so cold and lifeless? Because of hard-heartedness.
“The more you soften your heart, the more Divine grace it will contain,” these words of St. Barsanuphius the Great so amazingly echo the words of Elder Aimilianos!
Therefore, we should make our hearts feel pity as often as possible and convince ourselves that those for whom we feel resentment, who we don’t want to know, who we would like to forget once and for all, deserve our sympathy. And we must pity them. And our hearts will be transformed.
Then our hearts will become more more vulnerable, more open to sharing in someone else’s pain and suffering:
“He who loves more suffers more,” as St. Silouan of Mt. Athos explains this pain.
But this suffering makes our hearts more generous, stronger, purer and more merciful.
Prayer softens our hearts too. But not only the prayer in which we ask the Lord to have mercy on us and our loved ones; that kind of prayer often remains cold and lifeless, making us sad. And do you know why? It’s because in it we find too little room for those who are still not close to us, far from us, especially those who are hostile to us. What did Elder Paisios the Hagiorite say to the monk who had asked him how to progress in the Jesus Prayer? The elder advised him to pray fervently for others and learn to perceive their pain as his own. True prayer is born precisely from this feeling.
And, of course, if we want to acquire a merciful and compassionate heart, we must perform works of charity—not “special” ones that we “invent”, but charity suggested to us in the course of our daily lives, by one or another situation or occasion. At first if only out of necessity and a sense of duty, out of the awareness that you want others to treat you in the same way—to forgive, understand, accept, support, help and console you. And then this wonderful feeling will come more and more often; you are not only doing what is pleasing to God but also rejoicing in the things He is rejoicing in. You are doing this together. And you suddenly learn what it means to be a child of the Heavenly Father. And, having experiencing it once, you will want to keep that feeling forever. It will become so dear to you.