The Season of Great Lent has begun. It is time of renewal, repentance and joy. It is not yet the time of triumphant Paschal delight, but a time of quiet and, yet, at the same time, profoundly deep joy, which is not visible at first glance. Perhaps it is due to the fact that during the fast, we once again hope to tear ourselves away from the concerns and worries that have enslaved us within our daily lives. We hope to find our real selves.
Great Lent prepares us for that greatest of celebrations: Pascha. It is a real journey. It is the springtime of the spirit. And this spring pilgrimage should bring us to the proper end point, where we will become better then we were at the beginning.
How can we go properly through Great Lent?
To eat well
Before we start talking about the spiritual meaning of the fast, it is important to clarify what exactly our food is. The differences between foods becomes more visible precisely during this fast. The meaning of the fast is not refusing meat or dairy. Food itself does not bring us any closer to God, or take us further away from Him. As we are creatures content on bones and blood, the subject of our nutrition is quite important. There is a general rule: we have to eat “easy” food (namely, we must strive to eat food that gives our bodies and souls a sense of lightness). But it is just as possible to burden yourself with easy food too. Try not to get obsessed with it.
Also, there is no need to look for the abundant special fast recipes on the Internet. Perhaps one should try to spend less time cooking your meals. Spend less money on buying your food during the fast. Taking this aspect into account, there is something to think about – such as how reasonable it is to buy special seafood that is allowed by church discipline. At the same time, certain exemptions do indeed exist for certain groups of people (such as those who are ill, hard workers, pregnant and breast-feeding women, and so on). In this case, it would be prudent to get advice from your spiritual leader. If you do not have an opportunity to do that, you need to make your own decision. It is well known that it is better to under-fast then to over-fast. Temperance is a golden rule.
To give up bad habits, or addiction to something.
Fast is a time of relief. We are being released from those things which enslaves us. In this time, we can make serious attempts to give up our various bad habits or addictions. Everyone has to perform their own good deeds. Someone during this time may give up an addiction to drink or to smoke; someone else will just as likely give up watching of a television series. There is no need to ask the others to perform a kind deed, just try to perform it yourself.
To pray regularly
Fasting without prayer is not a true fast, but try to find just 15 or 20 minutes for prayer in the evening and in the morning during the fast. You can read normal prayers for mornings and evenings together with the Gospel. But during Lent, it would be better to add one more short but essential prayer that sets the tone of the fast such as one by Ephraim the Syrian.
To read the Holy Bible
During the Great Lent there are three Old Testament books read during the Pre-sanctified Liturgies; Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs. There is also a tradition during this time to read all Four Gospels at home on your own. It is difficult to be a Christian without knowing the Gospel. If you have not read the Old and The New Testaments yet, try to do so during the next forty days of Lent. Even if you have previously read the whole Bible, please don’t think it’s enough. Our memories are never truly as rock-solid as they seem, and we forget much. Try to read the Gospel regularly. It would be better if you do this every day, after finding a quiet time so that you can concentrate on what you are reading. It would be even better if you can find some time after reading to think about it, and then compare it with your own life and experience.
Attend the liturgies
The time of Great Lent is a special time in the order of Church’s routine. One can feel it only by going to church for weekday services, along with the services regularly served on Saturday evening and Sunday morning.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann referred to this time as that of “bright sadness”. It is the special tone of this time which you can feel only during the beautiful quiet liturgies during the week. Try also to visit the liturgy once or twice during the reading of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. This canon is the longest of all canons of the Orthodox Church. It comes from the depth of the confession and runs throughout with a hope for the Love of Our Father. The Orthodox Church reads this canon by parts in the evenings starting on Monday till Thursday on the First week of Great Lent, and then repeats it all on Wednesday evening of the Fifth week. It is truly necessary to go to Church for Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts. If you can come to church where this liturgy is in the evening, then you can receive communion and feel the anxious expectation of meeting with Jesus Christ. Lastly, it is very important to come to church onthe Days of the Passion, beginning from the Great Thursday’s evening. But this time is further away, and it is better to speak about it later.
To clear your mind from vanities
During the period of Lent, everyone decides themselves if it would be better to stop completely watching TV, or to avoid visiting blogs, forums and other social networks on the Internet. Truthfully, to read at least one book on a Christian subject would be far more useful. It could be a book about history of the Church, basics of religious doctrine, theinterpretation of Holy Bible or something else entirely. It is very necessary to choose a book carefully, due to the variety of the books in existence, and lack of spiritual quality of many of them. Reading books of classical world literature might also be useful as it will keep your mind away from the concerns and worries of everyday life.
Try to achieve what you had planned or wanted to achieve.
Try to remember your plans and aims. The period of the fast is a time with a positive tone. The main purpose of all restrictions like those found relating to food and pleasures is to give us time and the power to unite ourselves to Christ. This means you should strive to do good things, to love God and to love other people—and sometimes harder yet, yourself. Try to do something that will please not only you but others as well. We all hear the words of Christ before Lent: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”
Besides, you could create your own “rules” of the fast. They could be different, but it is important to take it seriously. Fasting is a time that requires us to come to decisions, some of them difficult. It is a time that calls us to make our own conscious efforts to better our lives, and the lives of those around us.
Translated from the Russian by Svetlana Tibbs
Edited by Cody Burkett and Isaac (Gerald) Herrin