The Arena of Virtues

For the Lord gives wisdom, and from His face come knowledge and understanding; and He stores up salvation for the upright. He will protect their journey.

(Prov 2:6-8, reading during the first Wednesday of Holy Lent)

We tend to think of an arena today as a place where athletes compete in order to attain a precious prize. Winning such a prize requires practice, strenuous exercise, discipline and great determination. In the great sporting arenas of our times, superhuman effort is required to actually become a winner. The arena of virtues, in contrast to the sports arena, refers to the period of Great Lent and it specifically has to do with the spiritual contest in which Orthodox Christians are called to exercise all of the above attributes.

The Christian, in contrast to the worldly athlete however, does not compete for a worldly crown but instead seeks to attain a closer relationship with Christ, the Wisdom of the Father. Here there is no sense of human superiority but the need to look inwards and strive for humility. This requires prayer, ascetic practice and renunciation of all worldly honours. Athletes and Christians both need to be disciplined, but their goals are very different; the former seek self-glory, the latter want to glorify their Lord and God while renouncing self. What are the real benefits of seeking such a humble relationship? Will such a striving for Wisdom offer the type of joy that an athlete has when he or she wins a worldly prize, or does the attainment of Christian virtues represent something which is not valued by most people, even those who are close to us?

In the above excerpt from Proverbs we are told that Christ, who is the Wisdom of the Father, places the crown of virtues upon those who reverence Him, who seek Him, who fear Him, who actively set out to find the treasure that is hidden in God’s paths. Very few know and appreciate the true value of undertaking such a journey because there is not a tangible crown made of gold or precious metal at the end of such a spiritual contest.

For struggling Christians there is no applause, and in particular the period of Great Lent, appears austere because its hymns are mainly prayers of contrition not songs of triumph. For those willing to undertake this path, however, of self denial and self-reflection, the crown offered by Christ is far greater in worth than any material treasure; it is the acquisition of understanding, an understanding of righteousness and judgement and a realisation of the promise by God to His children that He will protect them; He will aid them in their struggle to follow the path of virtue and renounce the evil road of vices.

Our Church, during this period referred to as “the arena of virtues”, has given us so many tools to help us undertake the spiritual struggle through fasting, repentance and contrition. Holy and Great Lent reminds us of the promises of our Lord, His great sacrifice and our eternal debt towards Him and it gives us the opportunity to sacrifice our self-will in order to strive for a higher goal.

Source: Lychnos February / March 2017