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.
“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art in all places and fillest all things, Treasury of blessings and giver of life: come and dwell in us, cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.”
You may have heard this prayer before, but have you ever taken a second to think about who it is to? We have prayers to God (as a Trinity and in His various Persons), the Theotokos, and various saints: which one is this? As it turns out, this is the only prayer in Orthodoxy (as far as I know) to the Holy Spirit. Let’s break it down.
Of course, I am not an expert on this prayer. I have done no additional research on it for the sake of this article.
From the hand of Deacon Matthew Garrett
Everything I am about to say is stuff that I have learned or thought through, so I strongly encourage you to enhance your knowledge of this prayer by discussing it with a priest and thinking about it on your own.
There are two halves to this prayer. The first half outlines who the prayer is to, the second outlines the request (before adding more about who the prayer is to). The opening line are all phrases that Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit. He tells his disciples multiple times that He will send them “the Comforter,” instructing them to remain in Jerusalem until He does. In fact, one time He goes as far as to tell them that it was good that He was leaving them, because if He had remained on earth, the Comforter would not have come. He also refers to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth in the Gospels.
We go on to say that this Comforter and Spirit of Truth is in all places and fills all things. This is critical in the Orthodox understanding of the Kingdom of God and salvation, and it influences Orthodox architecture.
Let’s suppose for a moment that the purpose of life is to be where God is, and let us suppose that God is in heaven. Therefore, the purpose of life must be to get to heaven so that we can be with God. If we believe that God is in all places, this is problematic because God is already here. God is already present with us, wherever we are, whatever we are doing. We don’t need to get to some other place to be with Him. What does that mean about heaven? Well, it means that we get to live out the Kingdom of God here on earth by connecting ourselves to the God who surrounds us, filling all things. This is why Orthodox churches have domes, showing the encompassing presence of God, rather than steeples pointing to some place where we presume He is.
I know there is still more to unpack in the first half, but I don’t know enough to talk about it, so let’s move on to the second half. What are we asking this omnipresent Comforter, this Spirit of Truth? It looks to me like an invitation. We are simply saying: come, be with us. Whatever we are doing right now, come be a part of it so that what we do may become sanctified. Come live in me, that I may learn to live in you.
We get to live out the Kingdom of God here on earth by connecting ourselves to the God who surrounds us, filling all things.
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One last thought about this prayer: remember it when Pascha comes around, because you will notice that we don’t say it any more. Once Christ is risen, He is with us. Like He said, the Comforter need not come while He’s here. After His ascension, we stop singing Christ is Risen, but we still don’t add this prayer back in. We wait 10 more days until the day of Pentecost, when the Comforter comes. On that day, that prayer is more powerful than ever, as for the first time in 50 days, we as a Church come together and ask the Holy Spirit to “come and dwell in us, cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord.”
May this prayer have new meaning to us whenever we say it, and may we remember it whenever we are doing anything for which we could use the Spirit’s guidance. May the Holy Spirit guide us all in this effort.
From everyone at OCF, we’d like to wish you a blessed Holy Week and a glorious Feast of the Resurrection!
For those of you who have finals this week or next, we are remembering you in our prayers (and so are these saints). Don’t forget, we have links to live stream services if you can’t make it to church and you’d like to tune in between exams.
We will be resuming our regular blog postings after Pascha. Stay tuned for Senior Profiles (or send us yours), more retreat reflections, and an epic ode to OCF.