The Interesting Voyage Known as “Great Lent”
Divine service ended at St Nicholas Church in Fairfield, and its parishioners, making the sign of the cross and prostrating themselves, did not hurry to depart. Awaiting Protopriest Nikita Chemodakov, whom I was to interview, I stayed in the church alone.
I found myself in an empty church for the first time ever, so I looked around and felt an unusual sensation in my soul. The feeling of a bright calmness and peace, inner quietness, came over me. All my problems receded, and it seemed that I could sit on the church bench all day, aware of the pensive gazes on the many icons of the saints.
Fr Nikita Chemodakov, whom I then told about what I was feeling, gave a smile of understanding: “In the church you will never be alone, because an angel is always present here. It is he whom you sensed, and that is the source of the calm and joy in your soul.” Our interview proceeded as though on a light, pleasant wave: Fr Nikita talked about himself with simple words and a good deal of good humor, he talked about his parish and the difficult but fascinating spiritual voyage known as “Great Lent.”
- Fr Nikita, tell us about yourself and your path to God. Were you reared in a religious family?
- Yes and no. My great-grandfather was a priest, but his son, my grandfather, left the Church, distracted by the views of Leo Tolstoy and joining that movement. My father, under his influence, was also far from the Church. Papa was born in Siberia, and Mama’s family was from St Petersburg. But my parents grew up in Harbin, China, where they met and married. So I was made in China, like so many other things are today [smiling].
Everyone knows that Harbin at the time was a very Russian city, even the local Chinese studied Russian, and they knew and respected our traditions. For instance, I remember how on Pentecost, they would sell bunches of grass from early morning, knowing that on this day Orthodox Christians decorated their homes with greenery. My mother was always more religious than my father, and we helped her adorn the icons and portraits with foliage-it was all very beautiful and festive. When I turned seven, my parents emigrated to Australia.
- How did you come to the Church?
- Actually, my father first came to the Church, due to a specific event. Once, in Australia, my father was fixing a roof, slipped and fell, shattering his kneecap. The doctor said that his knee would heal, but he would be on crutches for the rest of his life. My father was in his early forties then, so it was quite sad. Mama, meanwhile, had a photograph of the miracle-working icon of the Mother of God from one of Harbin’s churches. She started to apply the icon to my father’s knee from time to time. The kneecap quickly began to heal, and my father, to the doctor’s amazement, never even had to use a cane.
This had such a strong effect on him that he began to attend church regularly and even became a reader. I would go with him and began serving as an altar boy, then, at the suggestion of the priest, enrolled in seminary in America. Studying there was fabulously interesting, lectures were read in Russian, and these were eminent scholars and professors. There simply was no way to study such subjects in Australia, things like the history of the Russian Church, Russian history. Of course, I attended Sydney’s parish school, but what can you learn in only a few hours a week? In seminary, they covered these subjects more deeply. And the spiritual life really took hold of me. Monks are special people, they try to live by the Gospel.
I remember once talking to a hieromonk, and I began denouncing someone for something. The monk didn’t react, and then completely changed the subject. Only later did I realize that he did not want to participate in condemning someone, and he tried to lead me away from sin, but without rebuking me, without condemning me himself. There were many other such instances that left indelible impressions on me.
In 1978, I returned to Australia and began to serve in the parish in Fairfield, where I am to this day. So I’ve been here for a long time, and managed to get under everyone’s skin… But so far, thank God, no one is complaining [smiling].
- Your parish has been around for many years, it is very cozy and small-can it accommodate everyone who’d like to attend? Do you have many parishioners?
- Our parish was one of the first established in Sydney; in 2006, we celebrated our 50 th anniversary. It was built by refugees after the war. At the time, there was a dearth of bricks in Australia, so it was built with lumber. Of course, the church is old now, and on holidays, it can’t accommodate everyone. We are hoping to build a new church, an architect is already drawing up plans, so with God’s help, we will accomplish the task.
As far as parishioners are concerned, we have not only Russians, but many Serbs and Greeks. Often Orthodox Arabs from Iraq attend. They say that our church looks very much like theirs in its asceticism. One needs to stand in church for a while, get tired, then prayer comes more easily. But if you take a seat, relax, your little prayer won’t be the same, if you can even pray at all. The Orthodox Christian knows that he must overcome his laziness and tiredness, come to church after a day at work, stand in prayer the length of the service, and suddenly the backache he suffered from all day is gone, his strength returns, and his mood is elevated.
- Fr Nikita, let’s talk about the main topic of our conversation, Great Lent, which began on March 14. How important is it to observe? Are there exemptions for old or sick people? What is even the point of abstaining from non-Lenten food?
- Many view Lent as nothing but the refusal to eat certain foods, but this is a very superficial point of view. We often forget the spiritual aspect of Lent. A person has two natures-we have a body and a soul, we belong to two worlds, the earthly and heavenly worlds. Lent is not just physical abstention, but spiritual abstention, holding one’s tongue, that is, avoiding condemning others, avoid idle chatter, gossip, quarrels. This is even more important than physical fasting. As St John Chrysostom said, “If we refrain from meat but devour our neighbors, this is a mockery of the fast.” Real Lent is when we have physical restraint and keep our spirit away from temptation. You asked about old and sick people. I remember there was a Bishop Theodosius, who said at a youth conference once that Lent is for healthy people. Its goal is to weaken our flesh, which, enfeebled, is less prone to fall prey to temptations.
That is why a seriously-ill person (if you sneeze a couple of times, that’s not being seriously ill), when there is some chronic sickness-that is, suffering the sickness is already like observing Lent--one is not obligated to observe Lent strictly. But in the spiritual sense, observing Lent is mandatory for both the healthy and the sick. Even more so for those who are old or seriously sick, when a person may be on the threshold of the next world, for they need to think about their soul. That is, Great Lent is a genuine voyage, and interesting, event-filled voyage.
Under close observation, if one pays heed to what happens during these seven weeks, one understand how wonderful and remarkable it is. The Church begins to prepare us for Lent several weeks in advance, emphasizing the importance of this period. The book that is used for divine services during Great Lent was called a “treasure of repentance” by St Theophan the Recluse, for it contains so many profound and beautifully-put notions that one could never express on one’s own. If one is to observe Lent consciously, if one is to feel it, examine oneself, heed its call, an incredible spiritual beauty will be revealed to you!
The Russian Benevolent Society thanks Fr Nikita Chemodakov for his constant spiritual support of our people.