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The Ethos of Lent

by Fr. George Morelli

The ethos of Lent for the committed Orthodox Christian is told to us by St. Dorotheus of Gaza. He likened it to a wake up call, ‘a coming to one’s self’ (like the Prodigal Son) to find meaning for the entire year. The “great and saving forty days” are to wake us up to all times and seasons of all year.

St. Dorotheus means more than this year only because each and every year are ‘God’s times.’ God created and redeemed the world. We “tithe” as St. Dorotheus instructs us, in thanksgiving to God not merely for these forty days but for all times. Lent is to help us bring to mind the entire year and all our lives.

Lent is not meant for God, but Lent is made for mankind. Once again God gives Himself to us.

In his Discourses and Sayings, St. Dorotheus tells us:

“You see, God gave us these holy days so that by diligence in abstinence, in the spirit of humility and repentance, a man may be cleansed of the sins of the whole year and the soul relieved of its burden. Purified he goes forward to the holy day of the resurrection, and being made a new man through the change of heart induced by the fast..”

What does it take to have a change of heart? Like in one of the Gospels read in preparation for the Lenten period, the story of Zacchaeus, we have to first see ourselves as small and needing to see Christ. What are the requirements? We have to see ourselves as ‘potentially’ nothing. Without God, we are not small in stature but infinitesimally minute, actually non-existent.

Do we reflect on this? Our worth, as creatures are completely dependent on God. Do we see it sense this? We are made in Gods image, Do we reflect on this? Our intelligence and free will come from Him? Do we acknowledge this?

St. Dorotheus has meditated on our smallness. He tells us:

“When God created man, He breathed into him something divine, as it were a hot and bright spark added to reason, which lit up the mind and showed him the difference between right and wrong. This is called the conscience, which is the law of his nature. This is compared to the well which Jacob dug, as the Fathers say, and which the Philistines filled up. That is, to this law of conscience adhered the patriarchs and all the holy men of old before the written law, and they were pleasing to God.

"Of course our human ancestors, induced by pride fell to the temptation of the Evil One, and disobeyed God’s command. Our fallenness, passions and susceptibility to sin and death is the consequence of their disobedience.. Do we see this not only in it’s is cosmic proportions but existentially and individually in each of our lives? "

St. Dorotheus continues:

"But when this law was buried and trodden underfoot by men through the onset of sin, we needed a written law, we needed the holy prophets, we needed the instruction of our Master, Jesus Christ, to reveal it and raise it up and bring [us] to life..”

Zacchaeus climbed a tree, to overcome an obstacle to see Jesus. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, (1984) has indicated that meaning can be found in life by overcoming such life obstacles. Interestingly psychologists and psychiatrists have indicated meaning in life can be found by simply dealing with the barriers life imposes. They even extend this to humanly dealing with suffering and death.

Without God, and His Infinite Eternal Existence, however this leads to an existential vacuum. Non-existence added to all the human meaning anyone could possible imagine is nothing. By His Grace He has promised to share eternal life with us if we are worthy, what a blessing.

Frankl does say:: “to life [people] can only respond by being responsible." Frankl would add the this responsibility should be zealous. This is an astute observation. This is what Zacchaeus is doing. He is taking responsibility for overcoming the barriers in his life. He climbed the sycamore tree to see Christ.

Reflect on this more than on the human level Frankl suggests. If overcoming obstacles gives ‘human meaning’, how much more meaning occurs when obstacles are overcome to attain Divine illumination?

What are we eager for? What are we zealous about? Are we zealous for Divine illumination? Like Zacchaeus we have to see that we can have so much more of Christ. . For us the tree would stand for barriers and obstacles in our lives to “see Christ.” Lent is the time to “come to oneself” and discover our own barriers.

The Church gives us another gospel to prepare for Lent. The Canaanite Woman came to Jesus crying, "Have pity upon me Son of David!" It is the only occasion which Jesus was ever outside of Jewish territory: the land of Tyre and Sidon north of Galilee where the hated Phoenicians, the enemies of the Jews, lived. What is implied here? Did it foreshadow the spread of the gospel to the whole world? Was it the beginning of the end of the geographical barrier to His message? Could it be that even enemies should have the gospel of Christ proclaimed to them? Is it a call for all to hear His message?

What is the personal lesson for us? She was tenacious and resilient. After she pled for help in curing her daughter's possession by a demon, Jesus replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread, and to throw it to the pet dogs," -- hardly a comforting response given that calling a person a "dog" was an insult with the most contemptuous intent. Historians write that in those days dogs were the unclean scavengers of the street -- lean, savage, and diseased.

The Canaanite woman had to have been aware that Jesus was telling her that Jews considered her to be contemptible. But this did not stop her. She acknowledged Him as "Son of David." She was persistent and did not let obstacles: the insults of others stop her.

She was cheerful. To the question asked by Jesus: "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs?" she answered "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." Linguistic historians comment that her reply was a clever play on words, of someone with a cheerful quick wit.

St. John Chryosotom asked, "Was she silent and did she desist? By no means, she was even more insistent." Chrysostom pointed out Jesus knew she would say this. Jesus wanted to "exhibit her high self-command." She went even a step further, demonstrating her profound humility by not calling the Jews children, as Jesus had done, but "master" (Homily LII, on St. Matthew XV).

To follow the Canaanite woman's lead we too must be committed to Christ with all our heart. We have to be persistent, tenacious, stubborn, un-discourageable and joyful. This is similar to the psychological toughness that Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) had.

Both Zacchaeus and the Canaanite woman share something in common: they are tough and resilient, and take responsibility to overcome barriers. Resilience is a psychological process of adaptation in the face of obstacles, trauma, tragedy and stress is related to good emotional and physical health (Reivich & Shatte, 2003; Seligman, 1990, 1995). One characteristic of resilience and hardiness is to take decisive action, surely a fitting description of the Canaanite woman. Interestingly, religious people are more involved, hopeful and optimistic than non-religious individuals (Sethi and Seligman, 1993).

Both Zacchaeus and the Canaanite woman however looked to Christ and not to themselves. (Morelli, 2006) This is exactly how St. Dorotheus of Gaza said we should approach Lent.

“Let us strive with all our power never to put our trust in our own conjectures. For nothing separates us so completely from God or prevents us from noticing our own wrong doing or makes us busy about what does not concern us, as this.” (St. Dorotheos of Gaza, Discourses and Sayings).

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Another Gospel the Church reads in preparation for Lent), Jesus tells us something very important, so easy to overlook. Something happens to the son, an awakening an enlightenment. “But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!” (Lk 15:17). .” The prodigal son was finely able to see himself among the swine. He tested the reality of his situation, and ‘came to himself.’

This is our Lenten task: to have the vision to want to see Christ, like Zacchaeus, the resilience to attain it like the Canaanite Woman, the awakening to see the plight of ourselves without Christ as the Prodigal Son and become as St. Dorotheus implores us: to become “new men” and all share in the illumination of His life in us by our resurrection in Christ.


Frankl, V. (1984). Man’s search for meaning. NY: Washington Square Press.

Morelli, G. (2006, February 4). Resiliance and the Canaanite Woman. http://www.orthodoxytoday...

Reivich, K. & Shatte, A. (2003) Seven keys to discovering your inner strength. NY: Random House. NY.

Seligman, M.E.P. (1990). Learned optimism. NY: Pocket Books.

Seligman, M.E.P. (1995). The optimistic child. NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Sethi, S. & Seligman, M.E.P. (1993). Optimism and fundamentalism. Psychological Science. 4, 256-259.