Great Lent: An Instruction Manual

Priest Sergei Sveshnikov | 13 March 2019

It is that time of year again, and the internet is filling up with homilies and musings on the theme of Great Lent. It seems that every year the messages are the same: be kind, pray more, fast more–and, by the way, here are a few Lenten recipes to die for. On the one hand, the repetitions are understandable.

First, what more can be said that has not already been said over the centuries? Any modern writer who wishes to write about Lent inevitably has to take into account the very same writings of the very same great saints that every other writer has been reading and quoting for a millennium. Of course, there are some occasional extravagant takes on the issue of Lent. One priest posted an opinion, not altogether unfounded, on a reputable web resource that goes roughly as follows: “Lent is not about food. If you want yogurt, eat your yogurt. If you want a beef cutlet, eat your beef cutlet. Just don’t devour your neighbor.” While I think I understand what he meant by this piece of advice, and much can be said about setting proper priorities when allocating our limited will-power resources or about the futility of a diet without a proper spiritual disposition, it seems that in the modern world of bite-sized attention spans, this approach to fasting misses the very point of this ascetic discipline, turns Great Lent into an amateur self-help anger-management exercise, strangely equates eating meat with “devouring” neighbors–if I think I was a little less angry at my neighbor, does that mean I do not have to fast during Great Lent?–and essentially makes Lent meaningless. Indeed, I should not “devour” my neighbor any day of the year. So, if I practice that–however I may define it–I never have to fast, right? And the saints, the ascetics, and the entire monastic tradition of the Church has been completely mistaken in its fasting efforts, right? For the most part, however, modern writers repeat sensible and pious tropes about forgiveness, humility, discipline, and patience, and do recommend that lay people fast–at least as much as they are able.

Second, a repetition of the same themes is necessary every year because some things do not get to be “new and improved.” Every child has to learn to walk, talk, play, and love for himself; and every child in Christ must learn a virtuous life for himself in like manner. We do not always get to jump directly on a bicycle because someone has already invented the wheel. To be sure, we may not have to re-invent the wheel, but we may have to at least assemble our own bicycle. Some amount of personal work and effort has to be put in; we cannot simply “stand on the shoulders” or, more precisely, “ride on the necks” of the giants that came before us. And so, the same encouragements, admonishments, and instruction that were needed for past generations are also needed for us; and for some of us, they are needed every single year.

The third reason for the repetitions, however, should be alarming to us. The problem is that many of us do not seem to improve much or at all from one year to the next. There is no noticeable progression “from glory to glory” (2Cor 3:18). Babies eat milk and not meat (1Cor 3:2), but if a 20-year-old continues to demand a breast and refuses to eat adult food, there is a problem. If a schoolchild receives a lesson that two plus two is four year after year, but after ten years still cannot solve this simple problem, something is wrong. And if a Christian thinks of himself as still a novice ten or fifteen years after entering the Body of Christ, if year after year he still cannot fast because he is too busy trying not to devour his neighbor (at least, that is the excuse), then he should rethink his strategy. There is a strategy, right?

Simply floating downstream will inevitably put you… well, downstream. Humans acquire a meaning in their lives from overcoming obstacles, persevering in the face of hardships, reaching meaningful goals. “I ate, I slept, I died” is not something to which we aspire. We cannot just be, we have to become. It is said that to become a man, one must build a house, plant a tree, father a son. Everyone who has tried knows that this a metaphor for hard work, sustained effort, never-ending care–all aimed at achieving something worth achieving. So why is it that in our life in Christ, we let the house collapse, the tree wither, and the son stay in diapers and unable to eat adult food or add two and two together? Why do we not find it abnormal and worrisome that we remain infantile Christians year after year and for decades?

The truth is, people choose to remain infantile–whether in social life or in Christian life–as a way to avoid responsibility. If you keep wearing a diaper, other people will not expect much of you. But do we really think that we can get Christ to lower the plank for us? Do we really think that we can make baby noises at Him when He tells us: “Be ye therefore perfect” (Matt 5:48)? What will our answer be when He asks us: “Why did you keep wearing a diaper for 20, 30, 40 years?” If we keep eating yogurt and beef cutlets for Great Lent for the past five or ten years with the excuse that we are trying not to devour our neighbors, then it is either just an excuse, or we need professional anger management treatment, or we are not even trying.

Trying to achieve difficult goals can be overwhelming. Where do we begin and where do we go from here? As with many things in life, the steps along the path of a life in Christ are steadiest when they are small, manageable, incremental, continuous, and sustained. A thousand-pound pile of bricks may look overwhelming, but builders routinely move much larger piles–a few bricks at a time. In our personal and professional lives we accomplish impressive feats: we build magnificent houses, plant and maintain beautiful orchards, raise wonderful children, we go to the Moon and back, solve complicated equations in mind-boggling theoretical physics, write thousands of pages of creative literature, train for marathons and ultra-marathons–surely, most of us can figure out how to abstain from eating yogurt, cutlets, or neighbors for Lent!

If you are used to eating yogurt and cutlets during Lent, give up cutlets this year. Next year, give up yogurt as well. If you normally eat a vegan diet, try making it more simple–for example, do not add sugar in your oatmeal or something like that. If you already eat very simple meals, try abstaining from food altogether of the days that the Typicon suggests. It is OK to push yourself. It is also OK to fail. If you observe a strict fast on the first day of Great Lent, but realize that you have reached a personal physical limit–great! If you can be strict for two days–also great! It is not important whether you eat or not eat. What is important is that you try, that you put in the effort, that you push yourself a little bit past your comfort level.

Stop “devouring” your neighbor. Just stop. And stop using it as an excuse. If you need professional anger management counseling, get it. This does not mean that you have to become best friends with your neighbor or co-worker. But you can act like a normal, civilized, polite, kind, and tactful human being; and not only during Great Lent.

Help somebody in need. Do not try to help everyone or to fix everybody’s problems. Pick one need that is very manageable for you and offer help. Do this once during Lent. We have to start somewhere.

Forgive a debt. Pick the smallest one, if you must. Find someone who “owes you one” and tell them that they owe you nothing, and if they ever need more help, you’d be happy to help. Next time you recite the Lord’s prayer, think about its words carefully. Do this once during Lent.

Give up a grudge. Just one small grudge. You do not have to talk to the person who offended you, you do not have to send them letters or even post cards. You do not have to like what that person did or did not do. Just stop making ugly faces every time you think about this person, give up the grudge, and move on with your own life.

Start praying. No, you do not need to dress in a sakkos and ring bells as you enter your “prayer closet” (Matt 6:6). Recite one prayer in the morning and one in the evening during the first week of Lent. In the second week, recite two. By Passion Week, you could be at seven prayers. The numbers are less important than the effort you put in, but if you put in the effort, you will have the numbers as well. Sure, the collection of prayers in our modern prayer books is not written in stone by God’s divine digit, but if you find yourself mumbling something about the “Rule of Saint Seraphim” at confession, you do not know what that Rule is and for whom it is, and the priest is too polite and too tired to say anything to you.

Go to one church service during Lent that you normally do not attend. Just pick one and go. If your parish has limited services, consider attending one service at a larger parish or even a monastery. Perhaps, it will be a bit far and not very convenient, but you can try and go just once.

If “all these things have you kept from your youth” (Matt 19:20), and you are already really good at all this, challenge yourself with more difficult things. Maybe you could give your possessions to the poor (21) or at least challenge yourself and see what happens. Maybe you do not have to give away all that you own but could consider changing professions–even if it means getting a pay cut–and serving others in the Church, or in a good non-profit organization, or doing some pro-bono work. Maybe you could devote some part of your time to feeding the hungry or looking after the sick (25:35, 36), teaching children in poor school districts, building houses for the homeless, or simply shoveling a sidewalk for your elderly neighbor every time it snows. Pick something, stick with it, and see what happens. Great Lent is a perfect time to give this some serious thought. Not just some hypothetical Great Lent, thisGreat Lent–March 11 to April 28, 2019.

Ultimately, the priest who recommended yogurt and cutlets during Lent was correct–lay people do not have to fast, at least, they do not have to follow monastic rules. And unlike the hapless monk “who destroys Lent by daring to taste fish on days other than Annunciation and Entry of the Lord,” we will not be excommunicated on Pascha. We do not have to pray or go to church, and we can continue to mumble something unintelligible abut the Rule of Saint Seraphim. In fact, we do not even have to do that. Who can make us do anything?

But if we want to fast, and pray, be polite to our neighbors, or any other such thing, then we need to start by honestly and truthfully assessing and acknowledging where we are today, identifying the direction in which we want to go, developing a plan or a strategy of how to get there, and making small, manageable, incremental, but continuous and sustained steps in that direction.

It is impossible to “go there, don’t know where.” We must identify our goal with as much precision as we can. It is also impossible to “do that, don’t know what” and to make any steps, unless we identify with great precision what those steps are. If I asked you not to devour your neighbor, you might reasonably wonder just what I meant by that or what exactly you were supposed to do or not do. To be sure, we all share a vague notion of what this means, but it is just that–vague. But if I suggest that you not say anything about a person or write anything online to or about a person that you would not say in that person’s physical presence, then this is a little bit more precise. The more precise we can get, the easier it will be to actually accomplish a task. We will inevitably have to make corrections, fix mistakes, and learn a few lessons along the way. But this is no different from anything else we do in our lives. So, no, you will not achieve perfection this year. But you can be one small step further along the path of growing up in Christ. And if your compass is true, you will not have to appear at the Final Judgment still wearing a diaper.

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