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.
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.
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.
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.
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