Entries with tag watchfulness .

How Lent Can Guide the Rest of the Year

Whether or not we were ready for it, Great Lent is here! The Church gave us three weeks to prepare, and now we’re well on our way towards Pascha. Like many of the great figures in Scripture, we are given forty days to guide us closer to God. The forty days from Clean Monday through Lazarus Saturday are meant to be a period of change and transformation. What we learn about ourselves, the growth that we make during this period, and the passions that we gain victory over during Lent shouldn’t stop at Pascha. In other words, we shouldn’t be the same people after Pascha as we were before Lent began.

 

But how can we hold on to the growth we make during Lent? How do hold on to that spiritual high that comes at Pascha? Great Lent is a training period for the whole year as it guides us to support each other, to have an increased tolerance for spiritual practices, and to rely on God’s strength.

 

1. Supporting each other

 

Great Lent teaches us to rely on each other and to support one another in our common effort. This was one of the things that most appealed to me when I was first becoming Orthodox as a teen; our spiritual effort is a team effort. The entire Orthodox Church fasts together. We pray the same services throughout Lent and we have the same Holy Week services all over the world. We have one fasting rule, though each person’s personal fasting rule can be adjusted with the help of their Spiritual Father. We share in the one Lord through our one faith and share in one chalice at Holy Communion.

 

We have a shared fasting discipline; each person doesn’t give up something different during Lent. If I were giving up coffee, whereas you were giving up social media, and our mutual friend was giving up chocolate, it’d be hard for us to support each other in our unshared disciplines. So when I get together with my Orthodox friends during Lent, there’s already a mutual understanding of what sort of places we might go to or what food we’ll have at each other’s homes. We don’t have to explain ourselves or worry if we’ll have anything to eat. When we fast together, we can better support each other.

 

This principle of supporting our brothers and sisters in a common effort ought to inform the rest of our year. We all have days where we can barely stand spiritually, and though we know we need to rely on God’s strength, it helps to know we have church friends to help us, too. If I’m sensitive to my friend’s fasting needs during Lent, am I sensitive to what might be going on in their lives? Am I open to my friend’s helping me when they see that I need help? My friends are the hands and feet of Christ; they are reminders that God is just as present with me as they are.

 

2. Increased tolerance in spiritual things

 

The more we accustom ourselves to spiritual practices, the more they become a part of our lives. What we did last year during Lent might not be sufficient for the spiritual growth that has taken place in our lives over the last year. And once I’m used to fasting during Lent, it will feel more natural to keep the fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year.

 

This is the principle of tolerance, usually spoken about in the context of addiction. The more a person does something, it takes more of the habit or substance to get the same effect that it once took. In a spiritual context, we can see how Lent can guide us to have an increased tolerance for fasting, prayer, worship, and service. If before Lent, I only prayed once a day but prayed twice a day during Lent, I will be inclined to desire more prayer after Pascha has come and gone.

 

But it doesn’t always happen that way, does it? During Lent, it can feel natural to go to church, to pray more, to fast. And then Pascha comes and so does the temptation to let prayer slip a bit until we’re right back where we were before Lent. What we need is to be more aware of ourselves.

 

Lent helps us to be more watchful of our thoughts so that we can follow the Lord’s command to stay alert (Mark 13:37). St. John Cassian writes, “We are told to fast not only to mortify our body, but also to keep our intellect watchful, so that it will not be obscured because of the amount of food we have eaten and thus be unable to guard its thoughts” (“On the Eight Vices,” The Philokalia, Vol. 1, p. 75). The more I’m attentive to my thoughts, the more I spend time reading Scripture and less time on social media during Lent, the more this will begin to feel normal. But in order for this to happen, I have to be watchful during Lent so that I can see when I start to slip back to the way things once were.

 

When we’re watchful, the spiritual progress we make during Great Lent can guide us to a new normal for life after Pascha.

 

3. Relying on God’s strength

 

One of the paradoxes of Great Lent is that by learning self-control, we learn to rely not on our own strength but on God’s. The more I learn to say no to meat, the more I can say no to my passions. The more I can say yes to reading Scripture, the more I can say yes to letting Jesus guide my life. What I always have to remind myself of though is that Lent isn’t about being perfect. We do not fast so that we can prove to ourselves, to God, or to anyone else that we’re good at self-mastery.

 

We fast so that we can remember that God is the Lord and Master of our lives; we fast to remember that we are not God.

 

St. John Cassian, when writing on the passion of lust, speaks about the ascetic work one takes and the importance of relying on God instead of on one’s own power. He writes,

 

We should not trust in our own strength and ascetic practice, but in the help of our Master, God. No one ceases to be attacked by this demon until he truly believes that he will be healed and reach the heights of purity not through his own effort and labour, but through the aid and protection of God. For such a victory is beyond man’s natural powers. (“On the Eight Vices,” The Philokalia, Vol. 1, p. 75)

 

No spiritual task we undertake during Lent – fasting, prayer, reading Scripture, serving the poor – is done of our own strength nor should it be for our own glory.

 

During the year, we can easily fall back into the habit of relying on our tried and true friend “me, myself, and I”. We can forget that our labor doesn’t put food on our table; God puts food on our table. Anxiety and stress cannot solve a problem; God is the solution to every problem. During Lent, I find it easier to remember God because I’m keeping Him in mind each time I choose my meal and each time I go to church throughout the week. So once I hit the spiritual highs of Holy Week and Pascha, I have to hold on to the good practices I learned during Lent. At the start of each day, I can choose to keep God at the forefront of my mind, and throughout the day, I can remember that I can do nothing apart from Christ (John 15:5).

 

Then, Lent stops being just a period of days every Spring and becomes a way of life. Lent is a guide to rely on God instead of relying on ourselves.

 

*****

 

Lent is not meant to be a practice disconnected from the rest of our spiritual lives during the year. It is meant to inform our daily practice by teaching us to be ever more attentive to our thoughts and actions. As we fast together and support one another during Lent, we learn to continue to support each other spiritually throughout the year. As we increase our spiritual efforts during Lent, we should raise the bar for ourselves afterwards too. And as we rely on God during Lent to strengthen us in our fast, we should remember to always rely on God.

 

How can you let Lent guide you even after Pascha has come? How have you made spiritual progress since last Lent?

 

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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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Three Things in Common Between the Twelve Steps & Orthodoxy

In Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, we looked at all of the Twelves Steps and how they parallel with Orthodox Christian teaching. It’s my hope that many of you saw how much the Steps resemble the ancient practices of the Orthodox Church. Now that we have looked at the specific workings of each of the Steps, let’s take one final look at three principles we can all take away from this reflection.

1. Watchfulness & Vigilance

The experience of those working the Twelve Steps has shown that addiction involves what is referred to as an allergy of the body and an obsession of the mind. An important component in recovery, then, is keeping watch over one’s thoughts that tend towards an obsession on one’s addiction.

Similarly, in Orthodox Christian practice, watchfulness is vital to the spiritual life. Instead of accepting and participating in our destructive thoughts, we can choose to let them pass. Some compare guarding our thoughts to watching a train go by without feeling we have to jump on, or watching a bird fly by without letting it roost on our head. Temptations seem to come out of nowhere sometimes. But we have a choice to either latch on to them or to let them pass by.

Keeping watch over our thoughts helps us to put this into practice. Watchfulness requires vigilance and self-awareness. This teaches us that the spiritual life is an active (not a passive) process.

2. “One day at a time”

One of the most commonly heard expressions by those working the Steps is “one day at a time.” This expresses not only a desire to live in the moment, but also a reminder to let go of the past and to stop worrying about tomorrow. Addictions take years to develop, and recovery must be given time as well. In moments of temptation, the thought of never having one’s drug can feel unbearable. “One day at a time” takes the focus off of “I can never have ___ again” and reorients the person back to the much more manageable present moment.

This same lesson is given by Christ when He said, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). It’s so easy to beat ourselves up over our past failures or to despair over our ability to carry our crosses tomorrow. But we can only repent today; we can only encounter Christ today. So, we each have a choice to make. I can be anxious about whether or not I can do this or that, or I can live one day at a time and ask for God’s help.

3. “Abandon yourself to God”

This phrase, “abandon yourself to God,” from the book Alcoholics Anonymous is an important concept for those working the Twelve Steps. The active practicing of the Twelve Steps directs the addict to abandon himself to God in his daily life. This begins with the concept of surrender and is built up through regular prayer. The Serenity Prayer reads, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Repeated throughout the day, this prayer is a reminder to turn to God in order to accept life on life’s terms: to accept reality instead of trying to escape it.

Instead of focusing on the addiction or the sin in our lives, this principle of abandoning ourselves to the will of God reminds us that God can do what we cannot. Abandoning ourselves to God is an active work. It reminds us that knowledge of the Steps or knowledge of Orthodox teachings does not suffice. We have to put that knowledge to work by turning to God in all that we do. 

*****

There is much that could still be said on the common ground shared by the Twelve Steps and Orthodox Christian practice. Jesus Christ often elevated the lives of known sinners and non-Jews as examples to emulate because of the quality of their personal repentance and dependence on God. Similarly, we can all find courage, strength, and hope from reflecting on the experience of recovering addicts today. Their healing and recovery reminds us to practice watchfulness, to live one day at a time, and to abandon ourselves to the care of God as paths to our own healing.

How do you practice watchfulness in your daily life? Do you struggle to live one day at a time? Have you abandoned yourself to the care of God today?

 

Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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