It is now close to a year since the day that our parish was closed - Sunday, March 15, 2020. Not knowing what would come next and without any sort of plan, my family and I started celebrating Orthros and Vespers each day live on Facebook. There have been many blessings in that endeavor, not least of which being the opportunity to learn about so many of the saints and how the Church honors them.
One thing that I noticed was how many saints were praised for their self-control, A few examples
Apolytikia for St. Nicholas and St Ambrose (December 6 and 7): A rule of faith are you, and an icon of gentleness, and a teacher of self-control. And to your flock this was evident, by the truth of your life and deeds. You were humble and therefore you acquired exalted gifts, treasure in heaven for being poor. Father holy hierarch (St. Nicholas/Ambrose), intercede with Christ our God, and entreat Him to save our souls.
Apolitikion for the Holy Martyrs Menas Kallikelados, Hermogenes, and Evgraphos (December 10): When they had deadened burning impulses and movements * of sinful passions by their self-control and virtue, * then the Martyrs of Christ were given the divine grace * of driving away the illnesses of the sick * and working wonders, alive and after their death. * Paradoxical miracle it is indeed, that naked bones * should pour out cures abundantly. * Glory be to our only God.
In Vespers for St. Efthimios (January 20): O Father Efthymius, you disdained the things of this life, for you longed for the life on high.You despised wealth, for you were clothed with humility. You hated luxury, and you adopted self-control. You rejected injustice, and you pursued righteousness. Therefore, O devout father, remember us in your holy prayers to the Lord.
In Orthros for St. Procopios (July 8): O all-blessed Procopius, * having firstly through self-control * bridled all the passionate movements of the flesh, * youthen proceeded courageously * to contests of martyrdom; * for the Spirit of the Lord * had empowered you not to spare * even your own flesh. * You sustained all imaginable torments;then you hastened with your laurels * to join the chorus of saints on high.
The hymns of the church also call us to self-control, for example on the Friday before Palm Sunday:
Let us offer the palm branches of our self-control to Christ, who draws near humbly in the flesh upon a foal, and let us say to Him: O Saviour who come to Your Passion, blessed are You.
And, of course, self-control is part of the famous passage of St. Paul in Galatians: “Brethren, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23).
The Greek word that is translated as self-control is ἐγκράτεια. Broken down into its component parts, it means to have power in oneself. In particular, this power is understood to apply to the ability to choose that which is good even if it is difficult or unpleasant. Conversely, it is the power to refuse that which is easy or seemingly pleasant if it is not good. It can also be looked at as the ability to take emotions in consideration, while not giving them the power to be the final arbiter in the decision-making process.
Having the ability described above is important in the spiritual life for at least one reason related to each facet of self-control described above. First, it is often the case that doing the right thing is either not easy or is in some way unpleasant. Self-control helps us do what is right, anyway. Second, it is often tempting to choose that which is easy or pleasing in the short term simply because it is easy or pleasant. Self-control helps us not give in to those temptations. Third, emotions are easily manipulated.
The huge advertising industry (worth $138 billion in 2019) is built on manipulating emotions. The political apparatus (2020 campaign spending - between $11 and 14 billion) also thrives by manipulating emotions - through slogans, ads, and speeches. With that kind of money being spent, results are expected. In order to achieve those results, studies have been done to find the correlation between images, sounds, colors, and emotions. The attempts to manipulate our emotions are science-based and more often than not their aim is not to benefit us.
I am writing this as we have begun the Triodion. Lent is near with its emphasis on the three pillars of our faith: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Each of the three requires an element of self control. In prayer, self-control enables us to remain steadfast in those times when prayer seems dry, empty, or unfulfilling. In fasting, self control enables us to set aside certain foods and step aside from the table while still a little hungry. In almsgiving, self-control allows us to make do without some things in order to help someone else.
As we begin our journey to Great and Holy Pascha, let us ask God for this fruit of the Holy Spirit and offer back to Christ our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that, through them, we may be transformed into His likeness and find joy in His Resurrection and in His eternal kingdom.