Frank Schaeffer, a high-profile convert to the Faith, once wrote about a friend in a parish of former Anglicans who had been received en masse into the Orthodox Church. When Schaeffer asked his friend what the transition had been like, she replied, “It’s been wonderful. We haven’t had to change a thing!” This prompted Schaeffer to ponder whether one has truly become Orthodox if no change has been required.
Every Lenten season, but especially Great Lent, gives us the opportunity to change. For these forty-odd days we make short-term lifestyle changes, trusting that the Holy Spirit will grant us long-term transformations. We yearn for eternal changes: fruit of the Holy Spirit, virtues, a character more conformed to the image of Christ, a closer and deeper walk with our God.
So what changes are we to make? Fortunately, we do not have to struggle to figure this out. The Church in her wisdom has laid it all out before us. Some of you are familiar with all of these points and only need an annual reminder to put them back into practice. For others, though, some of these points may be completely new ideas.
First off, there is the fasting itself. Everyone knows they are supposed to fast, but not everyone fasts as they should. Some break the fast with the flimsiest of justifications, and others flout the fasting tradition without any justification at all. And even those who are truly conscientious about what they eat can easily forget why they are fasting to begin with: in order to deepen our prayer life. Nothing is sadder than have someone miss most or all of the special lenten services, fail to engage in any spiritual reading, neglect to come to confession, and then say a few days before Pascha, “But I kept the fast.” Well, perhaps in terms of food, but such a fast is only one-dimensional and worth very little, if anything, in terms of our spiritual growth.
Remember that fasting has as much to do with quantity of food as it does with avoiding animal products. If we observe the fasting traditions to the letter, we are actually not supposed to eat at all until 3pm. This is not insisted on nowadays, but it should keep us aware that we should be consuming fewer calories, not more.
Keeping Lent means much more than just refraining from certain foods. Married couples refrain from sexual relations in order to devote themselves more to prayer. This is why weddings are not performed during Lenten periods. (Unmarried folks, of course, should be sexually abstinent anyway.) As with fasting from food, the marital fast can and even should be modified, depending on the given couple and their circumstances. Fasting is never one size fits all, and it should never cause harm to oneself or one’s marriage. Fasting is a discipline, not a burden. If you have any concerns about fasting, you should always consult with your spiritual father.
We should also fast from worldly distractions: the TV and radio should be kept off. Worldly reading should be avoided. Of course, you can listen to the weather report and keep up with current events, but just keep it to minimum. The Canons were written long before TV and movies, but this is just pious common sense. Traditionally, even name days which fall during Great Lent are celebrated either before or after the Fast. And if this is the case with a godly custom like a name day, then how much more so when it comes to parties or theatre-going. Again, exceptions can be made for special events, but then there is the danger of every event becoming “special”.
Lent begins with forgiveness. The Rite of Forgiveness on Forgiveness Sunday (a.k.a. Cheesefare Sunday or “Blini Day”) is one of the most poignant services of the year. We literally bow down before one another and ask for forgiveness. And we forgive in turn. Sometimes the one is harder to do than the other. But real healing takes place. We have all witnessed this time and again. If you should happen to miss the Rite of Forgiveness, you can and should still ask forgiveness of your brothers and sisters the next time you see them. “Forgive me, a sinner.” “God forgives. Forgive me, a sinner.” “God forgives.”
An essential element of Great Lent is to come to more services, especially during the first week of the Fast and during Passion Week. Believe it or not, part of the idea of fasting is to give us more time to dedicate to coming to services. If we are eating less, we should be doing less cooking and shopping, and thus have much more time at our disposal. Sadly, though, we often end up spending more time cooking complicate vegan dishes and shopping for exotic – and often expensive – ingredients. Let us make an effort to simplify, simplify, simplify. If we are spending more time in the kitchen and more money on food, then something is seriously amiss. The early Christians would gather the money they saved by not eating and give that money to the poor. And we are the early Christians!
The first week of Great Lent culminates in our parish’s annual feast for St. Theodore the Recruit. It is such a joy to cap off the week with this celebration. But a celebration means so much more when we have spiritually prepared for it. All should make the effort to come to as many of the First Week services as possible, understanding the realities and demands of work and school. It is not unheard of for Orthodox Christians to take the week off and virtually live at church during this week. Even if you cannot come to services during the day, most are able to attend the Compline services on Monday through Friday. These are so special because the Great Canon of Repentance is chanted at these services, one quarter of it each night.
The Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts is served at least once a week at our parish during Great Lent. Sometimes this is served in the evening for the sake of those who cannot attend in the mornings. Many comment on how beautiful this service is. How true, but also how utterly vital for our soul’s well-being to receive Holy Communion in the middle of the week. Lent is a struggle, no doubt about it, and we need all the spiritual nourishment that we can avail ourselves of.
Our home prayer life intensifies, as well. Some call this “private prayer”, but really it should be family prayer, with all gathered together at the family prayer corner. During Great Lent we add the prayer of St. Ephraim to our morning and evening prayers. You can add it at the end, just before “It is Truly Meet”.
We should also be coming to confession more often, not less. Those who wait till the last moment before Pascha to make their confession are usually the ones who need the most attention, and sadly, this is precisely when the priest has the least time (and energy) to devote to these confessions.
Spiritual reading is also essential. First and foremost we need to be reading more Scripture, and the Church spells out exactly which books to read. Many Orthodox Christians have never read the Old Testament books of Genesis, Proverbs and Isaiah, even though we are expected to do so each and every Great Lent! The daily passages are listed on your wall calendar. I just timed it, and it took me all of four minutes to read the daily sections of these three books aloud. Reading to oneself, of course, takes even less. Surely we can devote four minutes a day to Scripture reading. “But I don’t understand these readings, Father.” Maybe not, but if you read them every year you will. And you can always ask questions if there is a passage you don’t understand. But neglecting to read these books is not an option! It is also healthy and important to engage in other spiritual reading, such as spiritual counsels from the Fathers or lives of saints. But the Scripture readings take priority.
If all of these practices are old hat for you, then glory to God! Consider this just a “refresher”. But if much of this is new to you, then there is no time like the present to begin. “Watch carefully how you walk [behave], not as unwise, but as the wise, making the most of the time, knowing that the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). Lent always goes by faster than we expect, so we should make every effort to make a good beginning. Then, come April 8, the words “Christ is risen!” will have a deeper meaning for us then ever before.