“If you become rich, consider whether or not you could worthily bear poverty. If you are happy, imagine how you could worthily meet unhappiness. When people praise you, think how you might worthily bear insult. And, all your life, think how you might worthily meet death.”
— St. Nikolai Velimirovich, “Thoughts on Good and Evil”
By the rivers of Babylon, painting by Gebhard Fugel, circa 1920
This weekend, at the Sunday Vigil of the Prodigal Son, we will sing Psalm 136.
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion”.
In these words of the Lenten Psalm, we Orthodox Christians, the New Israel, remember that we are in exile. For Orthodox Russians, banished from Holy Russia, the Psalm has a special meaning; but all Orthodox Christians, too, live in exile in this world, longing to return to our true home, Heaven.
For us the Great Fast is a session of exile ordained for us by our Mother, the Church, to keep fresh in us the memory of Zion from which we have wandered so far. We have deserved our exile and we have great need of it because of our great sinfulness. Only through the chastisement of exile, which we remember in the fasting, prayer and repentance of this season.
Do we remain mindful of our Zion?
“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…”
Weak and forgetful, even in the midst of the Great Fast we live as though Jerusalem did not exist for us. We fall in love with the world, our Babylon; we are seduced by the frivolous pastimes of this “strange land” and neglect the services and discipline of the Church which remind us of our true home. Worse yet, we love our very captors – for our sins hold us captive more surely than any human master – and in their service we pass in idleness the precious days of Lent when we should be preparing to meet the Rising Sun of the New Jerusalem, the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There is still time; we must remember our true home and weep over the sins which have exiled us from it. Let us take to heart the words of St. John of the Ladder: “Exile is separation from everything in order to keep the mind inseparable from God. An exile loves and produces continual weeping.” Exiled from Paradise, we must become exiled from the world if we hope to return.
This we may do by spending these days in fasting, prayer, separation from the world, attendance at the services of the Church, in tears of repentance, in preparation for the joyful Feast that is to end this time of exile; and by bearing witness to all in this “strange land” of our remembrance of that even greater Feast that shall be when our Lord returns to take His people to the New Jerusalem, from which there shall be no more exile, for it is eternal.
Footnotes:  “By the Waters of Babylon” is the entire Psalm 136, sung to a plaintive melody, after the Polyelos Psalm during Matins. It is only sung in church the three Sundays that precede Great Lent: Sunday of the Prodigal Son, The Last Judgment (Meatfare) and Forgivensss (Cheesefare) It is significant that this same hymn is chanted at the beginning of the service of monastic tonsure.  This homily was written in 1965, when the church in Russia was still under captivity to the Communist regime.
Only the gospel of Christ fully knows the mystery of sin and the problem of sin and everything which hides within it. The prodigal son of the Gospel is the perfect example of the repentant sinner. The Gospel shows us that man, through his free will, can share his life with Earth and with Heaven, with Satan and with God, with paradise and with hell. Sin gradually strips man of everything divine in him, paralyzes his every divine inclination and desire, until it finally throws him into the bosom of Satan. And then man reaches the plight of grazing the swine of his master, the Devil. The swine are passions, which are always greedy and gluttonous. In such a life, the unfortunate man is nothing more than insane. In a shocking parable of the Gospel, the Lord says about the prodigal son, ‘he came to himself,’ (Luke 15:17) How did he come to himself? He came to himself through repentance. Through sin, man becomes mad, insane. Every sin, even the most seemingly insignificant one, is always an insanity of the soul. Through repentance, man comes to his senses becomes complete again, comes to himself. Then he cries out loud to God, runs to Him, and cries towards Heaven, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and in thy sight’ (Luke 15:21). And what is the heavenly Father doing? He is always infinitely merciful upon seeing His child in a state of repentance. He has compassion for him, runs, embraces him, and kisses him. He orders His heavenly hosts, the holy angels: ‘Bring forth the best robe and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: for this is My son who was dead, and is alive again; and he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.’ (Luke 16:22-24) And this is taking place for each and every one of us, and for the sake of every sinner who repents. Namely, joy and happiness is taking place in the heaven of the All-merciful Lord and God, and together with Him, all of the holy angels.
+ St. Justin Popovich, From the preface to the book of Fr. Justin, Sinful Souls, Belgrade, 1968; quoted from Orthodox Faith & Life in Christ, “Select Writings of Fr. Justin”
“While the dying person addresses his last words to us, suddenly his tongue is at a loss, his eyes dim, his mouth falls silent, his voice paralyzed when the Lord’s troops have arrived, when His frightening armies overwhelm him, when the divine bailiffs invite the soul to be gone from the body, when the inexorable lays hold of us to drag us to the tribunal… Then the angels take the soul and go off through the air. There stand principalities, powers and leaders of the adverse troops who govern the world, merciless accusers, strict agents of an implacable tax bureau, like so many examiners that await the soul in the air, ready to demand a reckoning, to examine everything, brandishing their claims, that is to say our sins: those of youth and of old age, those intentional and those not so, those committed by actions and those by words or thoughts. Great then is the fear of the poor soul, inexpressible its anguish when it sees itself at grips with these myriads of enemies, who stop it, push and shove it, accuse it, hinder it from dwelling in the light, from entering into the land of the living. But the holy angels, taking the soul, lead it away.”
— St. Ephrem the Syrian, “Sur la seconde venue du Christ”, ed. Assemani, tome 3, pp. 275-276. excerpted from “Life After Death According to the Orthodox Tradition” by Jean-Claude Larchet pp. 90-91
“At the door of Your compassion do I knock, Lord; send aid to my scattered impulses which are intoxicated with the multitude of the passions and the power of darkness. You can see my sores hidden within me: stir up contrition—though not corresponding to the weight of my sins, for if I receive full awareness of the extent of my sins, Lord, my soul would be consumed by the bitter pain from them. Assist my feeble stirrings on the path to true repentance, and may I find alleviation from the vehemence of sins through the contrition that comes of Your gift, for without the power of Your grace I am quite unable to enter within myself, become aware of my stains, and so, at the sight of them be able to be still from great distraction.”
“Two nuns passed on. Both had been abbesses. The Lord revealed to me that their souls were having difficulty getting through the aerial toll-houses. Three days and nights, I, a lowly sinner, prayed and begged the Mother of God for their salvation. The goodness of the Lord, through the prayers of the Most Holy Mother of God, finally had mercy upon them. They passed the aerial toll-houses and received forgiveness of sins.”
“The dying person, knowing only that there is only one Savior and Liberator cries out: ‘In Thee have I put my hope, save me from my weakness’ and ‘rescue me from captivity’. For I think that the valiant athletes of God, after having kept up the good fight the whole course of their existence against the invisible enemies and escaping every trap, when they arrive at life’s end, are examined by the Prince of this world. If they are found, following the battle, to still have some wounds, stains or remnants of sin, are detained by him. However, if they are to the contrary whole and untainted, these invincible heroes remain free and are admitted by Christ to the place of rest.”
— St. Basil the Great, Homilies, On Psalm 7, 2 PG 29, 232B, D.
“And what follows of the Psalm [21/22],—‘But Thou, Lord, do not remove Thine assistance from me; give heed to help me. Deliver my soul from the sword, and my only-begotten from the hand of the dog; save me from the lion’s mouth, and my humility from the horns of the unicorns,’ is indicative of the suffering by which He should die, i.e., by crucifixion. For the ‘horns of the unicorns,’ I have already explained to you, are the figure of the Cross only. And the prayer that His soul should be saved from the sword, and lion’s mouth, and hand of the dog, was a prayer that no one should take possession of His soul: so that, when we arrive at the end of life, we may ask the same petition from God, who is able to turn away every shameless evil angel from taking our souls.”
— St. Justin Martyr, The Second Apology, Chapter CV
Why is it, you ask, that one can pray for so many years with a prayer book, and still not have prayer in his heart? I think the reason is that people only spend a little time lifting themselves up to God when they complete their prayer rule, and in other times, they do not remember God. For example, they finish their morning prayers, and think that their relation to God is fulfilled by them; then the whole day passes in work, and such a person does not attend to God. Then in the evening, the thought returns to him that he must quickly stand at prayer and complete his evening rule. In this case, it happens that even if the Lord grants a person spiritual feelings at the time of the morning prayer, the bustle and business of the day drowns them out. As a result, it happens that one does not often feel like praying, and cannot get control of himself even to soften his heart a little bit. In such an atmosphere, prayer develops and ripens poorly. This problem (is it not ubiquitous?) needs to be corrected, that is, one must ensure that the soul does not only make petition to God when standing in prayer, but during the whole day, as much as possible, one must unceasingly ascend to Him and remain with Him.
In order to begin this task, one must first, during the course of the day, cry out to God more often, even if only with a few words, according to need and the work of the day. Beginning anything, for example, say ‘Bless, O Lord!’ When you finish something, say, ‘Glory to Thee, O Lord’, and not only with your lips, but with feeling in your heart. If passions arise, say, ‘Save me, O Lord, I am perishing.’ If the darkness of disturbing thoughts comes up, cry out: ‘Lead my soul out of prison.’ If dishonest deeds present themselves and sin leads you to them, pray, ‘Set me, O Lord, in the way’, or ‘do not give up my feet to stumbling.’ If sin takes hold of you and leads you to despair, cry out with the voice of the publican, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ Do this in every circumstance, or simply say often, ‘Lord, have mercy’, ‘Most Holy Theotokos save us”, ‘Holy Angel, my guardian, protect me’, or other such words. Say such prayers as often as possible, always making the effort for them come from your heart, as if squeezed out of it. When we do this, we will frequently ascend to God in our hearts, making frequent petitions and prayers. Such increased frequency will bring about the habit of mental conversation with God.
— St. Theophan the Recluse, On prayer, Homily 2 Delivered 22 November, 1864