The lenten spring has come!
Let us begin the time of fasting in light!
Preparing ourselves for the spiritual efforts.
Let us purify our soul; let us purify our body.
As from food, let us abstain from all passion
and enjoy the virtues of the spirit,
So that perfected in time by love
We may all be made worthy to see
the Passion of Christ and the Holy Pascha
In spiritual joy!
~from the Lenten Triodion
It is a time honored tradition, even in Appalachia where I grew up and where we were anything but liturgical. Of course, it is not the only time we clean our houses. But this is a time for going deep. For pulling furniture away from the walls to get to the cobwebs and dust bunnies. For washing windows. For pruning rosebushes and clearing planting beds.
And so it is with our souls. How perfect that Lent is a springtime affair! As I expose and scrub the dark recesses of my home, I ask my loving Father to expose the dark places in me and make them clean. As I prune away the detritus of last season’s growth, the rot and ravages of winter, I invite the Gardener to cut away that in me which contaminates, impeding my growth.
Lent is the liberation of our enslavement to sin, from the prison of “this world”. ~Alexander Schmemann
In the Orthodox church, there are two primary focuses as we commence our lenten effort: fasting and forgiveness.
The Holy Therapy of Fasting
Alexander Schmemann describes the “holy therapy of fasting” as “the refusal to accept the desires and urges of our fallen nature as normal…our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total dependence on food, matter and the world.” He points out that Adam’s fall was an act of eating, a grasping for sustenance that was not communion with God but reliance on what he could provide for himself; a transgression of which I too often am guilty. Conversely, Jesus began His work of restoration with a period of fasting…
Satan came to Adam in Paradise; he came to Christ in the desert. He came to two hungry men and said: eat, for your hunger is the proof that you depend entirely on food, that your life is in food. And Adam believed and ate; but Christ rejected that temptation and said: man shall not live by bread alone, but by God. ~Schmemann
Ours is a prescribed fast. We do not eat meat, dairy, or eggs for the whole of Lent. Olive oil and wine are permitted only on weekends. Vegetables digest very quickly and hunger becomes a familiar companion. And the hunger in my belly becomes my teacher.
In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body. The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored…Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. ~Schmemann
The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world is division, opposition , separation, hatred. Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness. ~Schmemann
Lent officially begins for us with the beautiful service of Forgiveness Vespers. It is one of the most meaningful services of the whole year. One by one, we bow before each member of the church and say these words, “Forgive me, a sinner,” and in response hear the sweet words “God forgives and I forgive.” Then we embrace. Who knows how many hurts are carried into that room? Yet not one person refuses to bow. Not one refuses to forgive.
This year I delighted in watching four year old Titus continually press ahead in the crowd, so eager was he to ask the next person to forgive him. And I thought of what it means to have that planted deep in him at this age. May he ever be this eager to seek restoration. May we all.
Wash me with my tears, O Saviour, for I am defiled by many sins. Therefore I fall down before Thee: I have sinned, have mercy on me, O God. ~Lenten Triodion, Forgiveness Vespers
The Church strengthens us in this, our first week, with nightly services. Three nights we will pray the penitential Canon of St. Andrew. And the prayers and the prostrations begin to weave repentance into our very cells.
I have discoloured Thine image and broken Thy commandment. All my beauty is destroyed and my lamp is quenched by the passions, O Saviour. But take pity on me, as David sings, and ‘restore to me Thy joy’…As precious ointment, O Saviour, I empty on Thine head the alabaster box of my tears. Like the Harlot, I cry out to Thee, seeking Thy mercy: I bring my prayer and ask to receive forgiveness. ~Lenten Triodion, Canon of St. Andrew
Even as we discipline and deny our bodies, we are encouraged to feed our souls. In addition to availing myself of the services the Church so kindly provides to us in this season, I am also nourishing myself with Scripture and with good books.
Last year, I made a commitment to begin memorizing the words of Christ. I began with the Sermon on the Mount because it is three chapters of uninterrupted teaching. I was surprised by two things: How relatively easy it was to learn (because God honored and blessed the endeavor, I am quite sure) and by how much I have come to treasure those words. When I have difficulty sleeping, I recite them and they still my mind and bring me rest. I rehearse them when I am washing dishes or working in the garden. And it is remarkable how often I have needed those words to share with someone and there they were. I also committed John 17 (my favorite chapter in the whole Bible) to memory. Over the course of Lent, I hope to add chapters 14-16 of John. To hold in my heart those dear words He shared with His beloveds in His last hours on the earth is of inestimable worth.
Here are the books I will be reading. All are re-reads, save The Ladder of Divine Ascent. This book is read in monasteries all over the world each year at Lent. This year, I am joining them.
A blessed Lenten journey to you all.