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.
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.