A Southern Lent

One of the hallmarks of my generation in the South is that we never grew up without a great deal of attention to God. Whether it was the absolute assurance in the sermons of preachers who could say with some precision who was going where when they died, or even with assurance describe heaven, or the far more mundane mutterings of public figures giving lip-service to the God in Whom we believed. I have mentioned before that I am grateful for the fact that in my childhood, memorizing Psalms in public school was considered normal.

What was missing, strangely, was God Himself. There was a mystical South, to be sure. Pentecostalism was thriving (in my childhood it was almost completely confined to Mill Villages), and you could hear stories of people jumping in and out of windows at Church and many other sorts of wild things that may never have happened.

What was missing was any sense of a quiet, deep knowledge of the Living God, garnered over a life-time of prayer and repentance. I’m sure it existed – but not anywhere you could notice. To read Flannery O’Connor is to engage in some level of self-recognition for many of us in my Southern generation. We love her writings, but wince at some passages that tell more of the truth than any of us would like to see. “Tell it not in Gath” (2 Samuel 1:20).

The discovery by some of the historic Church (whether Catholic or Anglican) was the discovery of a different world, with tales of saints and heroes that bore no resemblance to the experience we had known as children. I recall being in high school before I ever heard the phrase, “Giving up something for Lent.” Living in a household that was not of a single religious mind, I don’t remember ever giving up anything for Lent.

In seminary (Anglican) I once gave up anger for Lent. It’s the hardest fast I’ve ever kept.

What strikes me the most in my Orthodox life are the stories of many saints, living and departed, who (particularly in our modern world) came from atheism into Orthodoxy. In Russia, the more common term for a Christian is simply, “Believer.” And this is as it should be.

Our default position within modern America is some form of atheistic or agnostic materialism. On a bad day, we barely believe in God but remain utterly convinced of the power of the market and the engine of industry.

Lent comes to take on even greater importance in such a setting – for we are not only seeking to repent – we seek to believe. And Lent makes it clear that the two are not separate things but mutually interdependent. Without repentance, there can be no belief in the God Who Is. To know God – to actually know Him – repentance is indispensable. Only a broken and contrite heart can know God.

There are many things that break our hearts, and many others that bring us to the point of contrition. But often these very crushing blows drive us only deeper into ourselves and despair. Thus the need of Great Lent.

To be broken by grace and crushed by the hand of God is far kinder than the treatment we receive from the world. To take up the Church’s Way of Life during Lent, and to lean into it, will always put us on a path towards brokenness and contrition. But there is a world of difference between the brokenness and contrition that comes as the gift of grace and the brutality of the world’s humiliation.

St. Paul said, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). To fast and pray, to give alms and show mercy, for the sake of knowing God is to take up a cross of “godly grief” and the fruit it bears in our life is salvation itself. The grief of the world can be submitted to God and become a godly grief, at least in my experience I have found it so.

But whatever we do in Lent, we should be looking for God. There is no other purpose to our existence than fellowship with God and with His creation. We simply need to take up the journey that follows that path.

Of course, this journey is not peculiar to the South: it is simply new for many.

For Southerners, and others who may be fans of Flannery O’Connor, I recommend an article by my dear friend, Fr. Paul Yerger. I first heard it at an assembly in Dallas and find it good to reread now and again. It may be found here.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





17 responses to “A Southern Lent”

  1. Reader John Avatar
    Reader John

    Some of us grew up Christ-haunted in the North, too. I’m amazed at the parallels between your account and my history in Wheaton College-type Evangelicalism. How blessed I am to have stumbled onto Orthodoxy.

  2. GretchenJoanna Avatar

    Father Stephen, I had never read that story, *Parker’s Back”; the excerpts in Fr Paul’s speech are stunning. I’m not a Southerner, either, but I do have the experience of throughout my life collecting many fragments of the faith and not having them amount to a fulfilling whole. Thanks very much for this meditation.

  3. Andy Coan Avatar

    “There is no other purpose to our existence than fellowship with God and with His creation.” –A sublime and simple creed.

    As a Southerner and fundamentalist Baptist-cum-Roman Catholic, what you say really strikes a deep chord. Our hearts need Lent as badly as they need the joy of Easter; these are the rhythms we were made for. More and more I wonder how those who are without a real Liturgy can stay on track at all.

    Thank you for sharing this, Father.

  4. Margaret Avatar

    This is a beautiful posting, Fr. Stephen, thank you!

  5. Jeremiah Avatar

    The comments about godly grief producing repentance are just like the amazing paradox I have been experiencing. You had a beautiful answer for the question I had asked you about that. This is another piece to that puzzle.

  6. Darlene Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    As regards Fr. Paul Yerger’s article, I can understand and relate, and I have never lived in the South. The North, Midwest, Southwest, and Northwest are not unfamiliar with the same kind of culture. The accents may be different, but religious fundamentalism transends borders.

    I’ve been through a hodge-podge of religious experience, and sometimes scratch my head wondering how I survived it all, still having faith in Christ our God. I experience the Jesus Freak, para-church culture, with Bible in hand pounding the streets calling all lost souls to repent of their sins. I rapped with the head tripper college kids and warned them that their ego and pride would lead them to destruction. I suffered the suffocating oppression of a Jesus cult whose message was that all the other Chrisitans out there were blind and uncommitted, lost in their materialism and relgiousity.

    I’ve had hands laid on me to be “slain in the Spirit” to be set free from the spirit of ________ (fill in the blank). Others who called themselves Christians, told me to stay away cuz they didn’t want any of my “cult baggage” rubbing off on them. I went to the altar circles to receive the “Second Blessing” so I could finally know what it was like to live in sinless perfectionism, according to the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. I became perplexed as to why God would not give me the gift of tongues so that I might be powerfully filled with the Spirit, as so many others in Pentecostal circles were. The binding of Satan and his minnions, the loosing of healing, health, and financial blessing – been there, done that, check.

    Dissolutioned with emotional experience, I considered what my 5 point Calvinist friends were telling me. The Doctrines of Grace would settle my inner longings for something more and the need to be settled. But alas, how they were to be found wanting as I could picture myself like that spider hanging over the pit of hell, of which Jonathan Edwards preached. Despicable worm that I was, wretched in my total being, I could do nothing to change this human predicament. The TULIP could not give me peace, but rather, forced me to ask even more questions. How could I know, for sure if I was elect? I could pray, I could read the Scriptures, I could evangelize, I could plead for God’s mercy, but in the end, if I was predestined to reprobation, there would be nothing I could do about it. In fact, I would have to praise God in damning me to hell. And all the inward searching to be assured that I was a child of God was fruitless, for I could be given “false” faith leading me into deception. WHO could be saved, I wondered. WHO actually was saved in reality, I wondered.

    Chuck the denominations, I decided. Leave ’em all in the dust. The non-denominational churches cried out to me, they wooed me. We aren’t a denomination – we don’t have all that hierarchal authority structure to deal with, we’re all there is. I took the bait. Free at last! No tradition, no bishop, no catechism, no councils, no creeds, none ‘o’ that to answer to. We listen to the Holy Spirit and He leads us. Disputes and contention arose within our ranks, but who was there to settle such things? Somehow the Holy Spirit leading us, when put into practical terms, didn’t work.

    Chuck the non-denoms – they couldn’t fulfill their promises afterall. But maybe, just maybe, those more Conservative Lutherans could finally settle it for me. Afterall, they started it all…hmmm…or did they? No harm in tryin.’ Sacraments, what er they? Regenerational Baptism…huh? Liturgy…ya lost me. Confession….now wait a minute…ain’t all of this sounding a bit too much like the…..CATHOLICS?

    Come to think of it, the Christian faith didn’t start in 1517. Lemme see…what’s history got to say. Cardinal Newman, he said to be “deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I dunno. All I’ve ever been is a Protester of one stripe or another. Still….what harm can a bit of good ole investigation work cause? So I took up the challenge. And read, and prayed, and wept, and read, and prayed, and wept, over and over again.

    I mighta become Roman Catholic, I nearly did, but then I dug a little deeper, searched and read a little longer, prayed a little harder, and weeping began to turn into joy. Not a triumpalistic feeling, not one of self-righteousness, like I had found what eluded most of those poor, lost sinners out there. Rather, a joy that was mixed with a vexing in my soul, for as the Proverb says, “With much wisdom comes much vexation, and he who increases knowledge, increases sorrow.”

    I had found that pearl of great price, at a great price, that will continue to be a great price. But in the process I also discovered mercy. Facing my sin, in all its forms of caked on religiousity, cloaked in the garb of arrogance and self-deception, manifesting itself in staunch holier-than-thou verbage, the finger of God pointed at me. Look in your heart – what kind of Christian are you, Darlene?

    He has called me to His Church, that beautiful bride, who struggles with sin, seeks healing from the Great Physician, and finds the balm within the Sacraments. There is Life and illumination to be found in this Church, with all her foibles and faults. She is the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox faith offered me what my heart had been seeking all along. So Cardinal Newman was right in one respect, except history led me to the East. And now the only place I long to be taken to at the end of this journey is Heavenly Jerusalem.

  7. Micah Avatar

    Ah, Darlene the distortions of history!

    Who hasn’t suffered for the sin of Adam and Eve? What a wonderful confession. It could be mine.

    When asked “what will save us? ” in a pluralistic world that is undeniably and sometimes most horribly distorted, a well loved Hasidim once said:

    “God and our ability to stand in awe of each other’s faith, of each other’s commitment.”

    To which the German Cardinal from Rome replied:

    Man’s most precious thought is of God, but God’s most precious thought is man.”

    The wind blows where it wills but the House the Lord is building may well be called the House of the Four Winds.

    Christ is in our midst!

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your journey is not unusual, though not entirely common. The modern world has lost its moorings and the smorgasbord that confronts us only creates confusion. Orthodoxy, I believe, does offer the journey home, though not by offering a better set of arguments, or newer-improved experiences. It offers, to the soul who will seek it, authenticity. Christianity without Reformation or the distortions of radical reasoning. I believe that Orthodoxy leads us back to Christ, to the simplicity of knowing God in Christ, and to the simplicity of becoming more fully human. It is rich, too rich to be gathered in within less than a lifetime (thus we are patient). And though it speaks of the fullness of the faith, it is a fullness of the faith that gathers within it the fullness of humanity (complete with sin). This quote from Fr. Georges Florovsky seems appropriate:

    Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world — a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church — and resolve the question with his historical findings.” – Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology II, pp. 302-304

    You, of course, are experiencing this on the individual level, but collectively, it is being lived on the greater level. In some cases it is lived “by the theologian” but in most cases it is being lived on an existential level by individuals in a manner that Florovsky probably never imagined. May God use all of it as a true witness and a witness to salvation for us all.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think I prefer Florovsky.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: I should mention the photo. It is about 5 year old. It is of the trailer my parents lived in before moving to a retirement center. The young man is my son. It seems such a poignant photo to me. His look backwards to the camera is a look that speaks of something that is (has) passing (ed) away. Most Southerners of my age have an inherent sense of loss – of a world that has gone never to return. I now see it as an echo of a true nostalgia – the longing for paradise.

  11. […] Lent and the American south. […]

  12. Micah Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    I am truly sorry to hear of your deep and heartfelt loss. My prayers are with you and your family in the depth of your remembrances.

    This earthly life will for all come to an end one day (only the Father knows when) but for those who place their trust in Jesus Christ, transcience will give way to permanence.

    Thus we sow in tears, but then we shall reap in joy and return carrying sheaves.

    The desert will bloom! The kingdom of darkness is a fraud! Christ is in our midst!

  13. Benjamin Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Well said regarding the South and a sense of loss. I have been trying for a long time to put that sense into words: a longing for new creation is exaclty right. (I am a Tennesseean living in South Carolina.) Thank you for your blog in general and this post in particular. Your writings have made me look long and hard (& longingly) at Orthodoxy.

  14. Darlene Avatar

    Hey there, Susie! I remember going to a prayer meeting, just after I was saved a few months. It was in this store front on a winter night. Right after I entered the place, somebody started talking in a language I’d never heard before. And then pretty soon, somebody else joined in. And then another. And before ya knew it, just about everybody was speaking this language, which I later found out was speaking in tongues. They started out low, but pretty soon they were a shouting. And then the preacher opened up a vial of olive oil and began sprinkling it on people who were walking up to the altar. Then he started walking down the aisle, tossing the oil out on the people in the pews. Before I knew what was happening, people started hoopin’ and a hollerin’, jumpin’ up and down. Some folks were jumpin’ over the pews.

    I just watched in astonishment. I never did go back.

  15. Micah Avatar


    If I could just add this to what Darlene has already said:

    We live in between the times, between quiet contemplation and apophaticism. Some things, such as the ineffable name of God and His preexsistent incarnate messiah, create within us – always through grace – an eternal hunger of the fullness to come.

    I cannot think of a greater apophatic statement applicable on both sides of the eschaton, than Christ is in our midst!

  16. Micah Avatar

    The above should read “an eternal hunger for the fullness to come”, Fr. Stephen. Thanks!

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