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.
Listen in to hear College Conference East 2016 workshop speaker Fr. Antony Hughes share our understanding of prayer and some practical advice on how to pray.
Oof. Just the word is scary. Confession.
Look, as far as the sacraments go, I can’t really speak to marriage or unction, and to be honest, my memory of baptism and chrismation might be a little fuzzy, but I feel pretty secure in saying that up to this point, the toughest sacrament with which I’ve dealt has to be confession.
It’s on my mind today because I had the opportunity to go this past week. It was…well, it was what it always was. Gut-wrenching and embarrassing, exhausting and renewing, rife with uncertainty and doubt and faith and repentance. I hope.
When I was younger, confession always made me cry. Now that I’m older…okay, so confession still makes me cry, but I think it’s for a different reason. When I was younger, I was so scared of confession, so mortified at listing all of the things that I had done poorly, that I cried tears of fear at the impending lightning bolt that was, no doubt, hurtling its way down to earth to wipe me from the face of the planet. I did not have a full understanding of what confession was, the purpose it served: I thought it was a listing of my sins.
I still don’t have a full understanding of what confession is, but I think I’ve got a better bead on the purpose it serves: it is, of course, about forgiveness. About wiping the slate clean. About washing away the muck. And now after confession, I don’t cry out of fear of the God that is far away, trembling with anger over the sinful man who dared come before him, but I cry out of fear as I run to the God who is close by, awaiting me with open arms as I flee the sins that I allowed to enter my life, that starting pulling me away from Him. I don’t cry because I’m afraid of God–I cry because I just came to understand what my life looked like away from God, and I’m afraid of that.
Fr. Noah Bushelli of St. Philip’s in Souderton, PA likes to remind us that repentance is inexorably linked to the Greek word metanoia, which means a change of mind, a conversion of thought. Fr. Noah likens repentance to an about-face, a turning around of the heart to face God. And no matter how far down we have gone on the incorrect path, if we turn around to face God, suddenly, we are on the right one.
During my confession this past week, I was very impatient. I didn’t understand why I was struggling with the same nonsense that had plagued me for years. I wanted to know what I was doing wrong and how I could fix it.
I think that’s the easiest thing to do to confession: think of it as an exam, one of those weekly quizzes teachers use to “check your progress”–ugh. We have to go to confession and recap our old problems, talk about our solutions to those problems, and then come up with new ones to share. If we didn’t evolve, if we didn’t grow from that past confession, no matter how long ago it was, to this confession, then we just flat-out failed.
Well, yeah. That’s why we’re at confession.
Confession isn’t an every-so-often check-in with your priest/God. It’s not a progress report. It is a turning-around, a wiping away of the muck–it is the prodigal son in the pigpen who stood up, got out of the dirt, turned to face his father’s house, and began walking. And we fool ourselves into thinking that this is a one-time deal, that we better stay upright and on the path, at least until we get to the next pigpen, because if God sees us in the same pigpen…
See, it’s even weird to finish that sentence. If God sees us in the same pigpen, He’ll grow angry that we haven’t changed? We are sinful creatures stuck in a fallen, mucky world, and we all have our individual crosses to bear. Some will bear great doubt; some great pride; others great lust; others still great envy–but all will bear it and fight with it over long expanses of our life. To overcome great sin one must have great confession–and that means regular, heartfelt confession–great prayer, great sacramental life, great service, great worship, great love, and probably roughly five hundred other things I neither know nor understand.
We don’t get mad at a dish for getting dirty again, having worn it after we washed it! Nor do we wear a shirt out into the world, full of dirt and grime and body odor (looking at you, fellow college boys), and expect dirt to bounce off of it because we’ve already washed it once for that reason! And of course, we mean far more to God than a shirt means to us–how the more then will He care for us. “Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; wash me, I shall be whiter than snow,” the Psalmist says. Where was the ‘good for only 30 uses over lifetime’ disclaimer? Where was the ‘only works on each sin one time’ limit?
I don’t want you to think confession is a trial, where you squint your eyes and clench your shoulders, bracing for the fury that God may unleash. I don’t want you to think confession is a check-in point, where you’re supposed to have taken great leaps and strides since your last time around (of course, there is nothing wrong with being a better man, with new battles to fight–it just doesn’t happen every time). I don’t want you to think anything about confession at all, really. There’s nothing quite like it, in human terms. It’s you, turning and facing God. How can that possibly be circumscribed in human terms?
So go. Go to confession. Write down your sins before you go so that you don’t forget any. Stand in the church, facing God for what may be the first time in months, in years. That’s okay. You’re on the right path, now.