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Feasts and Holidays

An Excerpt from With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man

by Elder Paisios the Athonite (+1994)

This excerpt is from what I consider to be one of the most important Orthodox books I've ever read. The Blessed Elder Paisios the Athonite (+1994) has so many valuable things to say about the Orthodox Christian way of life—what has been lost in our day due to secularism, and how to restore and preserve what we can.

Although Elder Paisios is often addressing monastics, most of it is highly relevant to lay people who want to live authentic Orthodox lives. In his numerous comparisons of modern society with the older times he remembers so well, the Elder offers us glimpses into an Orthodox way of life that has largely been lost today, but which can still be restored and preserved to some degree. He beautifully and simply shows how life-giving Holy Tradition can be.

Every Orthodox Christian should read this book! Unfortunately, it is not well known due to marketing and distribution challenges. You can find it at Light and Life. I also highly recommend the short stories of Alexandros Papadiamandis, who in a similar but more literary way, offers us an inspiring look into traditional Orthodoxy lived to its fullest a century ago in Greece. —Patrick Barnes


"Let Us, the Faithful, Celebrate a Spiritual Feast" [1]

Our Lord Jesus Christ, with His great love and joy which fill the souls of the faithful during His holy feast days, exalts us spiritually and truly resurrects us. All we need to do is participate in these feasts and celebrate them with a spiritual appetite; for once we taste the heavenly wine to which the Saints will treat us, we will become drunk in spirit.

—Geronda, what must we do to live a spiritual life during these feasts?

— To live through Christ's feasts in a spiritual way, we must keep our minds focused on the holy days themselves and not on the work that we have to do to prepare for them. We should think about the events of each holy day (Christmas, Theophany, Pascha and so on) and say the Jesus Prayer glorifying God in our heart. This way we will celebrate with reverence every feast day of the Church. For most people, who live in the world, Christmas is the time to eat pork, Pascha to eat lamb and the Carnival at the beginning of Lent, the time to throw confetti. But for the true monks, every week is Holy Week. Every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday they experience Holy and Great Wednesday, Holy and Great Thursday, and Holy and Great Friday, that is, the days of the Passion of Christ, and every Sunday is for them Pascha, the Day of the Resurrection. Why must we wait until Holy Week to remember the Passion of Christ? Why should we be like people who live in the world? Can't we realize what Christ is risen means, without eating lamb? You see, Christ said, Therefore be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh. [2] He did not say, "Get ready right now!" From the moment Christ said, "Be ready!" we must all, but especially monks and nuns, be constantly vigilant and ready.

We must study and live through these divine events all the time. When someone studies the events of each feast day, he will be naturally moved to pray with particular reverence. Then, during liturgical services, our mind will be absorbed by the events we are celebrating and we will follow with great reverence the chanting of hymns. When our mind thinks divine thoughts, we get to live through these holy events, and in this manner we are transformed. We think of a Saint for whom we have a special devotion, or of the Saint whose feast day we are celebrating, and our mind rises higher toward Heaven. And when we keep the Saints in mind, they keep us in mind too, and they come to our assistance. This is how we can start a friendship with them one that will last forever. And so, even though we may live alone, we will actually share our lives with everybody: with the Saints, the Angels, the whole world. Imagine, being alone, and feeling their company! This is the living presence of the Saints who are God's children and will reach out to help us, their poor brothers and sisters.

Our Saints have shed blood, sweat and tears for the love of Christ. We should always celebrate them with reverence, and they will be there to help us. Every time we hear their Synaxarion "On this same day, we commemorate Saint ...," we must rise to our feet, like soldiers standing at attention when the names of their fallen comrades who died heroically are being read. "On this day of the month soldier so and so ... fell in action heroically defending the country in such and such a front."

If we want to really feel the significance of a feast day, we must abstain from all work. On Holy and Great Friday, for instance, the only thing we should be doing is praying. For people who live in the world, Holy Week is full of chores and obligations. On Holy and Great Friday, they will exchange good wishes "Happy Easter! May you live a long life! May your son find a good bride!" This is so wrong! On Holy and Great Friday, I will lock myself in my Kalyvi. Silence will be of great help to the soul during feast days. It's very much like the time that follows the reception of the Great Schema, when a monk or nun will spend a whole week in silence to allow divine Grace to fill the soul and to appreciate what has actually taken place. In silence, we get the opportunity to rest a little, to study and pray. When a good thought crosses our mind, when we examine ourselves, or say the Jesus Prayer, we will really come to feel something of the divine event celebrated on that day.

"Better Is a Little That the Righteous Has" [3]

It is unfortunate that in our days we don't use freedom to do good and become holy; instead, we use freedom to become more secular. In the past, people would work all week and rest on Sunday, a holy day. Now, they rest on Saturday as well. But are their lives more spiritual? Or are they more sinful? If people spent their time on spiritual work (prayer, spiritual study and so forth), things could have been different; people would live more conservative and decent lives. But we poor human beings try to rob time from the spiritual things, from Christ. People who live in the world will arrange to do all their heavy chores on Sundays. They are trying to find one Sunday for this chore, a holy day for another, and that's how they bring God's wrath on themselves. Why would the Saints then come to their assistance? Turn Sunday into a chore day? Never! Even if others offer to help us on that day, we should never accept it. Not on a Sunday.

We will not allow God to be in charge. And so, everything that we do without faith in God has nothing to do with Him; it belongs to the world. It does not have His blessing and for this reason the outcome is never good. When this happens we like to say, "It's the devil's fault." Well, not really. It's not the devil's fault but ours, for not letting God help us. When we work on holy days, we give the devil rights and then he gets involved in our affairs. The Psalm reads, Better is a little that the right eons has than the abundance of many wicked. [4] This is the kind of life that will receive a blessing. The rest is as worthy as shavings. But in order to live this way, we must have faith, philotimo and reverence, and put God in charge of our lives. Otherwise, we'll never get the job right whether it is on holy days or on week days and we'll end up spending our time on nonsense. And you'll see that God will never abandon you. I have never worked on a Sunday or a feast day, and God has never left my side and has always blessed my work.

I remember once, some threshing machines were brought to the village, and my father was notified that they could start on Sunday from our fields, and then move downhill to other lots. My father said to me, "What should we do? The machines are here." "There is no way I will work on Sunday," I replied. "We can do it on Monday." "But," my father objected, "if we miss this opportunity, we'll have such a hard time threshing with the horses." "That's fine with me," I said. "If I have to, I'll be threshing all the way to Christmas." So, I went to Church anyway, without giving the matter any more thought. Well, as the machines started coming toward our field, they broke down. "Forgive us, but the machines won't work. We'll take them to Yiannena and fix them, and when we come back on Monday, you will be first in line"! So instead of threshing on Sunday, they ended up threshing on Monday. I've seen this kind of thing happen so many times.

What Are Laypeople Supposed to Do?

How different was the spirit of Monasticism in the old days! I remember how laypeople, who celebrated the Feast of the Holy Cross according to the new calendar, would come to the Holy Mountain after the feast and bring us grapes. Sometimes, the day they arrived, we would be celebrating the Feast of the Holy Cross according to our calendar. But the Fathers would never go to unload the boat on such a day. They would send them back, or just leave them there, both the caique and the grapes. They would do the same if an olive oil or wood shipment would happen to arrive on the day of a feast. And the Monasteries were poor. The monks were thinking "What will people say if they see monks working on this day?" They would rather have a storm take the load, and lose the oil and the grapes, than to go and unload the ship, miss the Feast and scandalize souls.

Not so today... I happened to be at a Monastery on the eve of a feast day, and the monks were unloading grapes. The entire Coenobium later gathered together to squeeze them. That night they were supposed to have a Vigil, but they decided to postpone it and transfer it to another time. And that was a major Feast! "In the case of need even a law may be transferred..." In another place, they were repairing a Monastery damaged by fire, on a Sunday. Just wait... it will burn down again! When people who live in the world see these things, they naturally say to themselves, "Feast days mean nothing anymore."

We monks should be especially careful not to work on feast days, not only because doing so is a sin, but because we also become a cause for scandal; we sin twice.

People who live in the world are looking for an excuse to justify their sins. They may be working day and night and never observing the feasts, but let them see a monk or nun working on some emergency, and the devil will whisper to them, "Take a look; if priests work, why not you?" A nun may be seen simply airing a blanket on a Sunday, and if people see her, they will think, "Well, if nuns are working, what's wrong with us going to work?" That's why we need to be very careful; we don't want to cause a scandal.

—Geronda, what if a workman wants to work on a feast day, let's say on the Entrance of the Theotokos to the Temple?

—To work in the Monastery on the Feast day of the Entrance of the Theotokos in the Temple? No, that's not right! He should not be allowed to work.

—Geronda, this actually did happen. One of the Sisters did not think of telling the workman to come another day.

—Then the Sister needs to be given a canon. [5]

—Geronda, on a feast day, after the Vigil is over, if one becomes sleepy, can they do some handiwork while saying the Jesus Prayer?

—Can't she do prostrations? Let her do prostrations to overcome her sleepiness. Why do handiwork?

—How about on Sunday? Is it right to weave a komboschoini after a Sister has performed her spiritual duties?

— Why should you weave a komboschoini? Why not enjoy this day's full spiritual nourishment? Unfortunately the spirit of the world is entering our Monasteries. From what I hear, there are Monasteries where, on Sunday afternoons or in the afternoon of a feast day, they will return to their chores and duties. As if they have children that are dying from hunger or owe heavy debts that will force them to auction their house! Where's the need? Of course, it's different with the monk or nun who serves the visitors, or the cooks who serve in the kitchen. Someone needs to be there to do the necessary work.

Sometimes people bring me fish. "Take it and go away," I tell them. What will happen if people start bringing a live fish here, a dead fish there? If someone brings you fish here in the Monastery on a feast day, you would have to clean and cook it and so on. How will you be able to enjoy the feast day? Do you remember Father Menas in the Skete of Saint Anna?

A fisherman brought him fish on a Sunday morning, for the feast day. "They're fresh, Geronda," he said. "Today is Sunday, when did you catch them and they're so fresh?" he replied, puzzled. "This morning," the man answered. "Throw them away, son, they're anathematized," Father Menas responded. "And if you want to make sure that I'm telling you the truth, give one to the cat and see if it will eat it." And indeed, the fisherman threw the cat a fish but the animal turned its head away, with repulsion. That's how sensitive monks were in those days!

Now, on great feast days, you'll see Monasteries full of workers and technicians... Once, on the Feast of the Theotokos in August, a Monastery had a whole crew working with chain saws in the forest, gathering wood. Even though it was a clear day, suddenly it got cloudy, and lightning struck just next to the woodcutters, who were so terrified that they left without even notifying anyone that the forest was on fire. It took them forever to put out the fire. The following Sunday, two wood cutting crews went out again. These fires are God's wrath, because we have turned Sundays and feast days into working days. And the sad thing is that we don't realize what we are doing. We are pushing God's tolerance and patience to its limits.

If there is a need for something, the monks will pray, saying the Jesus Prayer one hundred times each, and God will enlighten someone to send them one hundred thousand drachmas. The monk's job is prayer. If we don't put our trust in God, who will? Those who live in the world? God feels obligated to hear the prayer of the monk who has entrusted his life to Him. When I lived in the Coenobium, there was a monk who assisted the Abbot. He was not quick at all; in fact, he never left before the Divine Liturgy ended, and yet he always managed to finish all his chores. I, on the other hand, who was quicker and left before the Liturgy ended to prepare the assembly room, would be running into all kinds of problems. Sometimes I would mishandle the coffee beaker and the coffee would spill all over; other times I would drop the cups and the glasses; something would always go wrong! But he would wait until the end of the Liturgy. He would cross himself and trust in God to help him. If he were ever reprimanded, he would accept it with humility. He was humble and benefited twice as much.

When we don't get stuck on unimportant details, which would cause no harm if omitted, we will benefit twice as much from whatever good we do, and give to the Saints, whose feasts we celebrate, double the praise they are due. We should try to the best of our ability, not to devote ourselves to work at the expense of our spiritual life, which should always come first; this way, no matter what job we do, we'll have the blessing of God. It's our spiritual life that must come first, not material things. If we put our work ahead of everything else and put prayer in second place, this means that for us work is more important than prayer. It is pride and irreverence that lie behind this attitude. The work of the spiritually bankrupt cannot be sanctified. If we put spiritual matters first, God will take care of us. When we monks don't observe feast days, what are laypeople supposed to do? If we don't do our spiritual work and plead with the Saints to help us, who will? What happens is that we end up saying all the time that we believe in God, but in reality we don't even trust in Him. If we monks and nuns, who wear the monastic cassock, will not respect the Canons of the Church, and violate and dishonour Her age-old traditions, what possible meaning can our lives have?

Normally, we must cease all work before the Vespers of Sunday or of a feast day. If arrangements can be made, it is better to work more on the previous day, and avoid any work after the Vespers of a festal celebration. It is a different matter, if, in the event of an emergency, some light tasks need to be taken care of in the afternoon of a Sunday or a feast day. But even in such cases, the work should be done with discretion. In the old days, when farmers out in the fields heard the church bell announcing Vespers, they would do the sign of the cross and cease all work. The women of the neighbourhood would do the same. They would stand up, cross themselves and stop knitting or anything else they were doing. And God would bless them. They had their health and enjoyed life... Now they have abolished the feast days, distanced themselves from God and the Church, and not surprisingly, end up spending all the money they earn on doctors and hospitals... Once, a man came to my Kalyvi and said, "My boy gets sick very often and doctors cannot figure out what's wrong with him." "Stop working on Sundays and things will change," I told him. He followed my advice, and his little boy recovered.

I always tell people that if they want to avoid calamities in their life, they should stop working on Sundays and feast days. Work schedules could be arranged to keep these days free. Where there is spiritual sensitivity, everything is possible; solutions will be found. That's really the issue here. Even if a particular solution is to our disadvantage, and we suffer a loss, in the end we'll be twice blessed. But so many people fail to understand this. They do not even attend the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy sanctifies. If a Christian will not go to Church on Sunday, how will he be sanctified?

It's unfortunate, but, the way things are going, people will do away with feast days, and with everything else. You see, they are even changing their names, and are forgetting their Saints whose name they bear. If they are named Vasilike, they change it to Vicky; Zoe (Life) to Zozo—which sounds like saying zo (animal) twice! They have come up with new feasts, Mother's Day, May Day, April Fools' Day... Pretty soon they'll say, "Today is Artichoke Day, tomorrow Cypress Day, later the birthday of the inventor of the atom bomb, or of soccer and so on..." But God will not abandon us...

Endnotes

  1. This is a troparion of the 6th ode to the second Canon of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (November 21).
  2. Mt 24:44.
  3. Ps 37:16.
  4. Ps 37:16.
  5. Canon: the discipline imposed by a Spiritual Father upon the believing sinner in the context of the Mystery of Repentance, for his or her correction. Such discipline could take the form of fasting, almsgiving, prayer, abstinence from Holy Communion for a specified time and so on.

From With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man (Souroti, Thessaloniki, Greece: Holy Monastery "Evangelist John the Theologian", 2006), pp. 368-379. Posted 3/5/2008.

+ + +

For man, the earthly life, life in the body, serves only as a preparation for eternal life, which will begin after the death of the body. Therefore we must avail ourselves without delay of the present life as a preparation for the other life; and as we chiefly work during week-days for the earthly life, we must work on Sundays and other holidays wholly for the Lord God, devoting them to attendance at Divine service, to reading the Word of God, to pious meditation, to edifying conversations, good works, and especially to works of mercy. Those sin grievously who neglect the matter of their spiritual education for eternal life in the world above. How can we forget our final destination? How is it possible to be so ungrateful to the Creator, Who created us after His own image and likeness, incorruptible, and for union with Himself; Who redeemed us by His Cross, and opened to us the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven? How can many of us becorne "like the beasts that perish"? "Let us lift up our hearts!"

From My Life in Christ, by St. John of Kronstadt, p. 291.