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.
Well, here we are. It’s Cheesefare week. Lent is right around the corner.
The Orthodox faith is one of preparation. We’ve been moving through the pre-Lenten cycle of services and readings for a few weeks now. We’ve heard the story of Zacchaeus, who climbed the sycamore tree that he might see Christ; the story of the breast-beating publican and the self-aggrandizing Pharisee; the story of the prodigal son, who squandered his father’s inheritance away, only to return again in humility; and this past Sunday, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, we heard about how will we be judged, when we finally come before the Lord.
Much like Lent, that final Judgment Day is coming, which is undoubtedly terrifying. Nobody wants to spend a lick of time thinking about that, but we’re going to ponder it for just a second. Because it’s all too easy to say, “Okay, yeah, there’s a final judgment, and it’s coming…but, it’s really coming eventually. So I’ll get ready for it tomorrow–ah, actually, I have a thing tomorrow. How does next week look for you?”
Very simply, I’d like to impress upon you the urgency of our situation. You’ve likely heard that “you know neither the day nor the hour,” but don’t forget from where that Bible verse comes. Matthew, Chapter 25, the parable of ten maidens. If you don’t recall it, you can read it here, but if you do recall it, then you know it isn’t a parable about judgment and fear, about salvation and damnation.
It’s about preparation. We’ve been in the pre-Lenten cycle for weeks, and to prepare for what? Lent…which, you know…prepares us for Pascha. The Orthodox Church is one of preparation.
As such, one week before Lent truly begins (and remember, the meat fast has already begun this week), I’d like to encourage you to prepare. When Lent comes, if you haven’t thought at all about the effort you’re going to undertake, the discipline you’re going to impose upon yourself–if you haven’t yet generated that burning desire in your heart that says, “Yes! I will do this!” you will undoubtedly falter. If you don’t get ready for Lent, whatever your unique this is…it’s almost impossible to preserve it.
When you resolve to do something, it is not just some spontaneous revelation that crashes down on you from above, to which you adhere with unflinching resolve. Nobody says, “I’m going to eat healthier,” and then they just do, perfectly. They say, “I’m going to eat healthier,” and then they look up recipes, go grocery shopping, get their friends involved, create milestones…and then they start trying to eat healthier. And when they slip up, guess what? They’ve prepared for those moments too, and they can recover from them.
As such, my encouragement to you is to prepare for Lent. Examine how you eat at college and what level of fasting is possible for you. Consider fasts from technology, from private sins. Consider reading a book from the Church Fathers, or listening to a podcast. Pray and ask for guidance and support during this upcoming season of preparation.
If I may, I’d like to supply one quick thought on what you’re about to undertake. I’ve encouraged you to spend time during your week planning your next six-ish weeks. Perhaps you are someone who does this regularly–I know, certainly, that I am not. I want to help prepare you for one of those inflection points, one of those inevitable obstacles that arises in the face of any grand plan or resolution.
You’re going to look different.
I’m not going to spin this a different way for you. When you sit down with your friends at the cafeteria without any meat, or perhaps without any meat or dairy on your plate, people might notice. They might say something; they might not. They may understand, if you explain; they may not.
But even beyond looking different, you’ll have to force yourself to do different things as well. You’ll have to break your routines, question your regular activities, examine your life through the new lens of your Lenten effort.
You’re going to be different, too.
And being different is so tough. I would argue that the driving force that pulls us away from the faith is the unquenchable desire to be the same. Not fully, mind you–not a mindless copy of other individuals, but the desire to be seen as ordinary, regular, a member of our peer group, integrated into society. The inevitable pull of college isn’t necessarily away from church, but towards college. We want to be accepted.
But if there’s anything the pre-Lenten readings tell us–and I’ve heard those readings were about preparation–it’s that being different is good. We should be different.
Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree when nobody else was, because he was short and couldn’t see Christ–he was different, a tax collector, spurned by the people around him. But Christ dined with him anyway. The publican could have seen the Pharisee, the exalted one of his peer group, the apparently ideal person, and he could have mimicked the Pharisee–but he did not! Instead, he did what he knew was right. The prodigal son, wallowing in the pigpen, had to stand up among the pigs and say to himself, “I am not one of these. I will return to my father, where I was truly myself.” In a serious Lenten undertaking, you are going to seem different to your peers, and you are going to feel different.
Find some alone time this week. Put your phone on silent and in your bag. Make sure nobody around you is distracting you. Look in yourself. What effort does the core of your being want to undertake this Lent? Do you have the means to manifest that in every day of your life? If so, how will you accomplish it? And for what inflection points, for what inevitable obstacles, do you need to begin preparing?
Lent is inevitable. So is the Judgment Day. We best get ready.
Sometimes I get these awesome ideas. Such as, going to bed at a decent hour (NEVER happens), taking a five-minute homework break (yeah…one hour later, still having a dance party with my roommate), or driving to three different OCF events/retreats across different states in ONE weekend (for the record…it was INCREDIBLE!).
Sometimes these ideas are a bit of a stretch and can leave me questioning my judgement, but sometimes these ideas have worked out in my favor and have lead me to some of the best and most memorable experiences of my life.
Last year, one of my favorite ideas was to sign my OCF chapter up for the 3 am time slot for Day of Prayer.
What is Day of Prayer? It’s a day when Orthodox Christian students join together and pray unceasingly for the first 24 hours of Great Lent. OCF chapters from all over North America sign up in advance for a one hour time slot. Then, beginning at 6 pm on Sunday and ending at 6 pm on Monday, chapters will livestream their hour of prayer so that people from all over the globe can view and participate in this spiritually-enriching experience with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
During my freshman year at school, I remember watching the Day of Prayer livestream on my computer from my dorm room. I had been frantically finishing up some homework at an absurd hour of the night. It was quiet and my roommate was asleep, but as I sat there in the light of my desk lamp, listening to the steady voices of the students reading, chanting, and singing the prayers of their hearts, I had a sense of peace come over me. I was being remembered and prayed for; I was not just another college student who felt like they had fallen below the radar of the outside world. In that moment, I was reminded that I was not alone.
Skipping to the following year, remember how I said I had this awesome idea to sign up for the 3 am time slot? Well yep, it was happening, and I managed to convince most of the members from my OCF chapter to join in on the awesomeness too.
In the dimness of the church with a faint chill running up and down the pews, our little group gathered in a semi-circle in front of the icon of Christ. We prayed the prayers, and as I looked around at my chapter, some of my closest and dearest friends gathered in one spot, I had no desire to be back in the comfort of my warm bed where I probably should have been at that hour of the night. I wanted to be there, standing side-by-side with my brothers and sisters, talking with God and thanking Him for all of the blessings in our lives. I don’t know about you, but I talk a lot. I could ramble on for hours if given the opportunity, but when it comes to talking to God, I don’t do it nearly as much as I should and as much as I would like to do.
Day of Prayer gives us that opportunity. You literally set aside one hour during your week to talk to God; to ask for forgiveness, thank Him, and give glory to Him for all things. You physically and remotely come together on the first day of Great Lent, prepared to start the journey with a clean slate, and you are not alone.
Maybe I was too jet-lagged after returning from my Real Break trip the day before to realize, but the initial grumbling of, “Rachel you signed us up for WHAT?!” later that morning turned into a collective agreement that it was so worth the effort.
Day of Prayer 2017 is from Sunday, February 26th to Monday, February 27th. Sign-ups have already begun–check it out here!
Rachel Howanetz currently serves as the Mid-Atlantic Student Leader on the Student Leadership Board. She’s a junior at Millersville University studying Early Childhood Education.