This past weekend I was blessed to participate in a pre-Lenten retreat at St. John Orthodox Church, my parish here in Memphis. The topic was “The Sermon on the Mount: The Journey to the Kingdom of Heaven is a Staircase.” The speaker was H. Paul Finley, Director of the Saint Herman House of Hospitality in Cleveland, Ohio.
I’ve known Howard for many years. In fact, fourteen years ago he married my best friend from St. Peter Orthodox Church in Jackson, Mississippi, Deborah Callaway. It was a joy to have both of them with us this weekend.
Howard gave three talks during the weekend, but it was the first one, on Friday night, that really got my attention. Of course I’ve been familiar with the Beatitudes all my life. We actually sing/chant them during the Divine Liturgy every Sunday at St. John. I’ve always thought of them as something ethereal, poetic, and beautiful, but I’ve never seen such a practical application to my daily life until Howard’s talk.
He explained the beatitudes as “Eight Steps to the Kingdom of Heaven,” with applications/actions to our spiritual and active lives (which really shouldn’t be considered as separate lives.) The first four steps focus on work on our souls, for example:
Step 1: Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
(Recognize your spiritual poverty, your need for God.)
The last four steps focus on serving and impacting others, for example:
Step 5: Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
(As you have been shown mercy, show mercy, especially forgive.)
On Saturday Howard expanded these steps, giving us tools to embark on the journey with the right attitude, three spiritual exercises to stay in shape, emphasis on the importance of trusting God, and warnings, which he calls seven spiritual traps.
The three spiritual exercises weren’t new to me—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—as they have been taught in our church for many years. But the way he showed us to use them in our struggles against our vices was really wonderful. If you’ve been reading my blog very long, you know that I have struggled with disordered eating for most of my life, and also that I have problems embracing fasting as it is prescribed by our church. Howard’s words (he’s quite a preacher, by the way, so these notes do not adequately capture his inspired talks, which, coupled with his humility, were so truly life-changing) gave me hope that fasting could help me with gluttony. I’m including pictures of two of his slides here, so you can see how he organized these thoughts.
One week from today, Orthodox Christians begin Great Lent with Clean Monday. Western Christians (Catholics and protestants who observe Lent) start their Lenten journeys on February 14, Ash Wednesday. Orthodox Easter, which we call Pascha, will be celebrated on April 8 this year, whereas Western Easter is April 1, one week earlier.
I look forward to joining all my friends in every religious tradition on our Lenten journeys this year. One thing I know we all have in common is the desire to serve, to help others. One way we do this is by giving alms. If you’re looking for a place to support that helps others in a wonderful way, please give to the Saint Herman’s House in Cleveland. They house around 40 men who would otherwise be homeless, and they also help with meals, clothing, and occupational counseling.
Here’s a video that shows more about this wonderful ministry.
Thanks for reading! I look forward to hearing about YOUR Lenten journeys… please leave a comment here or on Facebook.