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.
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.