Each household has its own set of routine chores that needs to get done. Vacuuming, sweeping, making the beds, doing the laundry, and so on. However, many families will set aside a time for a deeper and more thorough cleaning of the home. Spring cleaning. Spring cleaning is a time to undertake the chores that we don’t make time for on a day-to-day basis.
Great and Holy Lent is the Spring cleaning of our interior lives.
In its eternal wisdom, the Church calendar gives us a yearly preparatory time to take a richer and more holistic examination of the entire universe that is within us.
Each of us has wounds that stretch down deep inside of us; painful experiences, insecurities, fears, jealousies, and many other things that keep us from the eternal Joy of God’s Kingdom. These things can debilitate us, rendering us unable to be as joyful, as loving, and as compassionate as the Lord calls us to be. We make poor decisions, we find it harder to love those that hate us, we stress out and have anxiety, and we miss out on the glory of the Kingdom.
St. Andrew of Crete puts it better than anyone:
I fell beneath the weight of the passions and the corruption of my flesh, and from that moment has the enemy had power over me. Instead of seeking poverty of spirit, I prefer a life of greed and self-gratification. Therefore, O Savior, a heavy weight hangs from my neck.
And this is where it gets really good…
I persist in caring only for my outer garment, while neglecting the temple within me, one made in the image of God.
How much time do we spend worrying about the external world? How much do we care about nurturing social images and external appearances? Unfortunately, our obsession, and I daresay addiction to these things, never strikes us as being abnormal because all around us people are doing the exact same thing.
While we keep busy trying to manipulate everything going on around us, and spend so much energy on our “outer garments”, we completely neglect the temple made in God’s image, that is divinely placed within us.
“The Kingdom of God is within,” the Lord tells us in Luke 17:21. Ask almost any Christian what the goal of the Christian life is, and they will almost certainly say, “heaven.” If Christ, our Lord and our God, says that the Kingdom is within us, why don’t we go there?
We are scared.
We keep our headphones plugged into our ears, we spend hours mindlessly scrolling through pictures and videos of other peoples lives, and we avoid our inner life at all costs because we are uncomfortable with what goes on inside of us. There are thoughts we don’t understand, feelings we cannot articulate, and an entire universe that we do not know how to navigate.
When those things are brought to the surface, we mistakenly think that our problems are outside of us. We blame other people and lash out at them, we spread gossip, and we try to change everything outside of us without ever considering that maybe the problem lies within.
Lent is our time to reorient ourselves and to remember that there is quite possibly more work to be done inside of us than there is to be done outside of us. Maybe a better way to say this would be say that without the internal work of Lent, our external work will be meaningless. St. Paul says it like this:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. –1 Cor 13:1-2
Without the internal work of Lent, we will be unable to love perfectly. If we are unable to love perfectly, then nothing else matters. So we must dig deep, and begin the journey within.
How do we do this? 2,000 years worth of spiritual literature covers this topic. Some of my personal favorites are The Kingdom Within by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Olivier Clement, and Into The Silent Land by Martin Laird. Read up!
Also, making time for silent prayer and reflection is an integral part of our spiritual practice. St. Basil the Great calls silence “the beginning of the purification of the soul.” Turn off the TV, close Snapchat and Instagram, and simply take time to be still. The Psalms tell us to “be still, and know that I am God.”
Just as a family takes the time to clean their home more thoroughly, we as Orthodox Christians take Lent as a time to be more intentional in our spiritual practice, so that we might find deeper healing for our infirmities.
May this Lent be to our spiritual edification and enlightenment. May we answer the Church’s call to dig deeper within ourselves. May we seek the everlasting Kingdom of God within ourselves.
Mark Ghannam is a Junior at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor pursing a degree in economics, and serves as the Vice-President and Head of Clergy Relations for his OCF chapter. In his free time, Mark enjoys reading, rock climbing, and long walks on the beach while discussing Liturgical theology.
We’re going to take this a different direction than usual.
If you’ve read my previous “landmark” posts (here and here and here), which call for moments of perspective and reflection, you know that I tend to get a little…excited. Fervent, some might say. Off-kilter, probably a few more would say…
Regardless of how you might describe those posts, they’re undeniably intense. They’re meant to dig deep, to get to the roots of our very being and make us question things we otherwise would have overlooked. That process of brutal self-honesty is a good one. I think it should be integrated more often and readily in our lives than just with three posts throughout the school year.
That being said, I’m not going to spend a fourth post doing that. That was my original thought, but I won’t.
I don’t know about you, but Lent is dog-tough for me. I mean, just knuckles-bared, teeth-grinding difficult. And that’s not because I do anything special, no. I spent from 7:30 AM to 8:00 AM this morning laying in my bed, convincing myself I didn’t have to go Liturgy. I was so exhausted with church, guys. I was just at the end of my rope and wanted to sleep.
I went, probably more out of guilt and fear and pride than anything good. As I stood in church I felt the rejuvenation, and I knew I had made the right decision. But man, I did not want to make the right decision at all.
I think that sentence there really encapsulates one of the greatest struggles I face. I can walk you through every step of my decision-making process, no sweat. How I came to recognize the choice before, how I evaluated my options, how I discerned the best one–the whole kit and caboodle. But when it comes time to make the right decision, I often…don’t.
And it’s weird, because the entire time–before I make the wrong decision, while I’m making the wrong decision, and after I make the wrong decision–I’m thinking to myself, “This is the wrong decision. Stop.” But it feels like I have just no free will at all, no control over my body or my mind. And I just…poof. Make the wrong decision.
In reality, of course, I did have free will, but I didn’t turn to God to help bolster me, to strengthen me when I was faced with that decision. I elected to face it alone, to make a solely man-made decision. The first man-made decision, of course, was Eve’s, and most of the other man-made decisions have been pretty crummy since then. Without God present in our choices, sin takes us.
“So the grand point of your whole ‘I’m going to take this a different direction post’ is: ask God for help? That’s super revolutionary, Ben.”
Let me finish, Fictional and Sarcastic Interrupter.
The thing is, when we’re about to make the wrong decision and we realize we could and should and must ask God for help, you know what we do? We compound our wrong decision by making another one. We recognize the opportunity to ask God for help, and we neglect it, casting it off to the wayside. Why? Because that wrong decision just looks oh-so-tempting.
What then is the solution? We’re trapped in a vicious circle wherein we can never make the right decision to start rectifying all of our wrong decisions. How do we escape the rabbit-hole?
Lord have mercy. Roughly 300 bajillion times.
You know how you don’t pay attention to the words of your prayers some (most) of the time? You gloss over them because they’re familiar or unfamiliar; repeated to the point of hackneyed or foreign to the point of unintelligible? Psalm 50 is my jam, but I always miss that first verse:
Have mercy on me, oh God, according to thy loving kindness; and according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.
I can’t tell you how hard that smacked me in the face this Lent. I’ve been so focused on the push, on the dogfight, on the toughness and grittiness and hard-nosed fast–on this romantic image of me standing up to Satan and to sin–that I’ve literally got zero clue what’s going on. I am a little hamster, convinced he has traveled many miles, when really his wheel is just turning a touch faster.
I was so focused on some grand battle that existed in my Pharisee head (not good Pharisee, who’s smart and knows stuff about the Bible; but bad Pharisee, who makes up stuff about God and doesn’t recognize Jesus at all) that when I heard that my God was supposed to have mercy on my “according to the multitude of His tender mercies,” I was flabbergasted.
Lent is a period of preparation–for what? For Pascha. The sacrifice of the Lamb of God, the redemption of Adam, the correcting of that first, uber-crummy, man-made decision. Pascha, the extreme humility of God, the mercy of God that he showed his fallen people by giving his only-begotten Son as a ransom to death–that is the solution to the vicious circle of wrong decisions. A God who became man for us, that he could understand that struggle, so that he could be merciful unto us—THAT’S what the Incarnation, the Ascension on the Cross, and the Resurrection is all about.
But I missed the forest for the trees. I made Lent about me and my effort–not about Christ and His glory.
What does this mean for you?
Well, hopefully you did better than I. If not, that’s okay. I’ll be begging for mercy right next to you for the next two weeks–and probably a few weeks after that, too.
Great Lent. It’s pretty much the best time of the year. Growing up, I always got super excited when Lent rolled around for some of these reasons:
1. You get to sing all your favorite hymns.
2. There are more opportunities to attend church services.
3. Prostrations = working out
4. It made me thankful for everyday things, like having a regular glass of milk.
5. Lenten food, despite being simple, is actually really good. (Editor’s note: agree to disagree)
6. There are more opportunities to receive Holy Communion.
7. And when Pascha finally comes, Lent teaches you how to feast.
But when I got to university, Lent became a little different. Scheduling in the services became much more difficult with my classes, finding Lenten food on campus is a daunting task, and my professors wouldn’t accept “I was at church” as a reasonable response for not having an assignment done, like my teachers at my Christian high school did. I remember one time talking with one of my non-Orthodox friends and casually naming off church services that I attend during Lent. “Wow,” she said, “How on earth do you have the time for that? I definitely don’t.”
You know what? Maybe my friend is right. Maybe I don’t have time for Lent. Maybe I’m just a little too busy this year. It’s March, and the list of assignments, tests, and extra-curricular events is piling up in my planner (not to mention the fact that it’s the end of the school year and I’m starting to feel pretty burned out). Right now, I want to be living from church service to church service, but the reality is I am sometimes living from deadline to deadline. What am I supposed to do?
I’m going to give it everything I possibly can.
You know why? Someday, that assignment, that test, that extra-curricular activity–none of it will matter. The time I spent praying, going to church, fasting, and serving others will. By the world’s standards, I absolutely do not have time for Lent, but we need this time of preparation more than we could ever possibly know. And no, the Snapchats I posted really can’t describe how beautiful and awe-inspiring this season is.
Many things have changed in my life, but when I say the Prayer of Saint Ephrem or sing one of the hymns during the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, I feel as though nothing has ever changed. You see, we are most ourselves during Lent. Praying, going to church, giving alms, fasting, serving others–you will never be more human than in those moments. Yes, our other commitments are important, and I do not want to undermine the importance of those activities, but nothing ever is more important than church.
One of my fellow Blog Contributors, Paul, recently told me that one time, after he missed a Presanctified Liturgy many years ago, he told his priest, “I’m sorry I couldn’t come Wednesday, I had a few assignments and knew I needed to finish them and get some sleep.” His priest responded, “That’s fine, but remember that when you come to church, it elevates your soul, and it often takes the body with it.” There’s nothing we need more than the healing Christ can give us if we allow Him to do so.
So please, I don’t know who you are or what your situation is, but I ask you not to let this opportunity to be the most human you can be pass you by. Don’t let our churches be filled with kids, teenagers, young professionals, middle-aged adults, and senior citizens, but empty of college students because this is one of the busiest points of the year for us. My dad’s a priest, and one thing I’ve always heard him tell his parishioners is that by the end of Lent we should be different people. And why would we not be different people? If we allow Lent to be a season of prayer and repentance, of course we will not be the same.
I’m not even going to try to advise you on what your Lenten discipline should look like, because that should be between you and those involved in your life. But I ask you to seriously consider doing something! If you have not started yet, it is never too late to start. When the Paschal homily of Saint John Chrysostom is read on Pascha, I am always amazed by these words:
If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.
If you have not begun your Lenten discipline yet, do not be afraid to start now.
College offers us so many amazing opportunities. It is pretty much common sense to know that we need to take the chance to have these experiences before we move on to a different phase of life. Some of these experiences are experiences of a lifetime. But Lent is even far more fulfilling than anything college could ever offer us, definitely much more profound than sending each other Snapchats of our fasting food and far beyond all human comprehension. So when the priest opens the church doors on Pascha, I pray that we will enter the church prepared for the feast, knowing that nothing in life is comparable to witnessing the glory of God.
All Snapchats were used with permission.
Anastasia Lysack in her third year of her Music degree at the University of Ottawa. She attends Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in Ottawa, where she teaches Sunday School and sings in the choir. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, volunteering, and visiting just about any coffee shop in the city of Ottawa.
Update: Lent started. Today is just a few days before the Sunday of St. John Climacus (aka the fourth Sunday of Lent), which means we’re more than halfway to Pascha. Some of us may have had the foresight to figure out specific goals for Lent going into it, while others may not have changed anything in their lives. Regardless of what boat we’re in, what do we do now?
In order to answer that question, we need to back up and figure out what Lent is. To fully understand that, we need to have some grasp on the state of humanity (my thought process tends to get really general really quickly, so stay with me). We are all spiritually sick. Whether or not we feel it, our souls experience sickness from disconnection with God. so how do we get healthy? Luckily, God provides us with a spiritual hospital: the Church.
The sickness that afflicts us prevents God from entering into our hearts. Our hearts are simply too hard to allow God to enter in, so we need to go to our mother, the Church, to chip away at it. Lent is a time for chipping away at that hardness of our hearts so that we can receive Christ to our fullest potential on the feast of His Resurrection.
So before we get to Paul’s monthly list, we need to remember why we do all of the things we do during Lent. Again, this is absolutely critical for two interconnected reasons: (1) if we go through the motions without realizing why we are doing it, the tasks become an end in themselves; in other words, we aren’t keeping ourselves from eating to grow closer to God, but because we feel like it’s this weird homework assignment we have to do; and (2) when we make the commandments of God an end in themselves, we become like the Pharisees, who outwardly did everything correctly but whose hearts were in the wrong places. And you can check out Matthew 23 to see how Jesus felt about them.
(Editor’s note: not a fan)
So back to the title: how do I Lent? Here are the things you can try:
1. Fast: Do something
As my spiritual father says, the amazing thing about fasting is that you can always do more or less depending on where you are. You can’t do the entire fast prescribed by the Church? That’s fine, do some part of it, like not eating meat. The fast isn’t challenging enough or spiritually beneficial to you? You can do more: skip a meal, don’t eat snacks, avoid adding salt or other flavor enhancers to your food, or avoid non-water beverages. The important thing is that you change what you normally do with food.
2. Cut something out
If you’re like me, chances are you’re doing a lot. The few seconds a day when you’re not either at a class or activity or have something to take care of, you spend figuring out how you’re going to get everything done that you need to do. There’s so much noise.
Find something in there taking you away from God, and get rid of it. I’ve done various things different years depending on what habits of mind are most destructive at the moment. This year it was deleting the Facebook app from my phone. Other years it has been not playing games on my phone during Lent. Find something that you are doing that is holding you back in some way from union with God, and get rid of it, at least until Pascha (hopefully beyond).
3. Go to church
Lenten services are where I discovered my love for the Orthodox faith. Many parishes have church on most nights of the week, so check your church’s calendar and try to make it to one, maybe two, or even all of them (that’s the recommended option). Part of Lent is adding prayer, and the church is supplying it for you. All you need to do is show up and participate.
4. Don’t worry if you slip
One of my past articles was about how you’re probably going to fail. Chances are, you are going to fall short of at least one of your goals (if you don’t, you may want to check to see if you’re pushing yourself hard enough). As someone who loves sports and is filled with useless sports stats, I have to ask you to do something that is very hard for me to do: don’t worry about your own Lenten statistics.
Read Paul’s article here!
I have wanted to be standing in the church on Pascha night, knowing that I attended every service in Lent, had not touched meat or dairy since Clean Monday, and had reached every goal perfectly. The problem with that mindset is that your whole motivation crumbles before you the second you make one mistake.
I offer this mindset as a replacement: starting right now, at this moment (be that as you’re reading this or when you think about it later), let’s strive to love God and do his holy will (citation: St. Herman of Alaska, see one of my past articles on that).
5. Talk to your spiritual father
I often think that I’m a bad judge of what is the right level to push myself in all of these categories, and I’m probably right. I have good judgment about how poor my judgment is. Don’t think about that too hard.
The good thing is, I have someone to talk all of this stuff out with, to say, “I want to do A, B, and C during Lent,” and he can say, “A and B sounds good, but you might want to consider tweaking C in this way to make it better for you.” And I have confidence that he’s right because he knows everything about my spiritual life, so he’s like a doctor giving me a specific prescription for my specific disease. What an incredible resource that we have in our spiritual fathers!
I pray that God will help us to keep all of these things in mind as we continue through our Lenten journey. May we fight our own battles while leaning on and strengthening one another. One of the beautiful things about the collective nature of Orthodox fasts is that we have our church communities and Orthodox friends all around us who are going through the same thing, and who can offer us strength and motivation to make that push to Pascha. It’s impossible for us on our own, but with God’s help and the help of the people around us, we can do what’s been laid before us this Lent.
Paul Murray is a senior psychology major and Spanish minor at Franklin & Marshall College, and he attends Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Lancaster, PA. His home parish is St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in New Kensington, PA, and he has spent the past three summers serving as a counselor at the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh Summer Camp and the Antiochian Village. In his free time, Paul ties prayer ropes and writes descriptions of himself in the third person for blog articles.
Boy oh boy it’s Wednesday, and in Lent that means Presanctified (AKA: the greatest church service of all time).
In my opinion, Presanctified is one of the most powerful and moving services we have in the Orthodox Church. If you’ve never been, your church likely has it on either Wednesday or Friday throughout the Lenten season. If you check their website/calendar, call your priest, or ask him next time you’re there on Sunday, it’s usually far enough in the evening that it can fit within college schedules.
Part of the Lenten effort is fasting–that’s the most well-known. But it isn’t the whole kit and caboodle–there’s more to it than just that. We can’t spend Lent sinning the same way we’ve been sinning, saying the same prayers with the same frequency, attending the same services at the same times, but just eat less meat and then expect to be different. It isn’t as simple as that, as easy as that.
The Lenten effort is a frontal assault, a full-bodied push. We’re preparing for the Resurrection, for our Salvation. We can’t leave a stone unturned, a stop unpulled. This is go time.
Part of that effort is church attendance, and more than just church attendance, but sacrifice for church attendance. We miss that sometimes: when we want to attend church, we say, “Okay, when I can go to church, I’ll go.” That’s good, but that’s only half the battle.
The next step is to say, “When there is church, I will go.” One of the best ways you can communicate value is through making sacrifices: when you stop doing homework to help a friend, you’re demonstrating that you value their well-being over finishing your workload; when you sleep, go out for dinner, or do homework over attending church, you’re demonstrating that you value those things over church attendance.
Now, there are services almost every day at my parish, and I don’t nearly make it to all of them. It’s infeasible. I wouldn’t be able to get all of my schoolwork done/get enough sleep. I couldn’t live that way eternally. Eventually I would have to drop out or die.
That’s a life out of balance, and I’d never recommend that. But I would recommend gaining awareness and assuming responsibility for our choices, and thereby our sacrifices. Undoubtedly, it is difficult to say, “I am currently totally overwhelmed with schoolwork and finals and other, worthy responsibilities, but I’m just going to shirk all of that and go to church.” But it is far easier to say, “The sacrifices I make communicate my values. Because I know this, I chose to go to church this week, on this day, at this time, no matter how stressed out I feel.” By preemptively making the decision, we can base it on the immutable values we know to be true over time, not the fickle feelings of the moment.
We can never step away from being ourselves. It is an incredible onus to bear. Never can we say, “Yes, I made that choice, but that’s not representative of me.” We can say, “I made that choice, and it was a representation of me at that time, but I have changed, I have repented since then.” But we can’t check out from who we are. If we are an Orthodox Christian, we attend church, we value church. We show up to the plate.
We can never step away from being ourselves.
– Tweet this!
And don’t get me wrong, that can be a very difficult plate up to which we can show. Church can unsettle us, throw us out of balance, make us feel guilty about what we’re doing, the sacrifices we’re making and the sacrifices we aren’t.
But it should. That’s a good thing. That’s our litmus check, our stock count. It gives us the opportunity to reflect on what we’ve done through a clear, unwavering, Orthodox Christian lens.
And on top of that, that incredible onus of always being ourselves, always being responsible for ourselves, always being a representation of ourselves? That’s a good thing, too! It means we are the owner of our actions, the former of our future. We have the power to choose and define. We have free will, and that is an inherently Christian thing.
Part of the Lenten effort is fasting, and every meal we are presented with a choice, an opportunity to make a sacrifice and communicate value. But the Lenten effort doesn’t end there: it asks us for entirely ourselves. Give what you can; to each his own. But understand that when you give and when you keep, when you sacrifice for this and when you sacrifice for that, you are representing yourself: you are a representative of the parents who raised you, the company you keep, the university you attend, and the church to which you belong, and the God who created you.
You are an exemplar, a model. Of what you are a model, the choice is yours.