When Your Lent Was Not Instagram-Worthy

12:30PM on Lazarus Saturday. I’m still in bed, my limbs weighed down by the ache of sleeping in too late.

Barely awake, I pull off my eye mask and instinctively reach for my phone to see if I’ve missed any important messages. Just one text from my husband, 57 minutes ago:

“Things I never thought I’d say to my Dad: Don’t put your breathing tube back in or your nose will catch on fire.”

I have no idea what this is about. After responding with an appropriately bemused emoji, I ask if he wants me to take over for him at the hospital so he can come home and rest.

While awaiting his answer, I open up Facebook to make sure my own parents had seen the late-night message I’d issued from the stroke unit.

Soon, though, I’m swept up in the current of the Almighty Newsfeed. Today it is a veritable Pascha bazaar, each entry hawking the wares of Orthodox Holy Week: Lazarakia pastries, homemade Tsourekia bread, palm crosses, handmade Pascha blankets, vigil candles…

The teeming marketplace is punctuated by Orthodox “shop talk” posts–photos and comments about how lovely the Lazarus liturgy had been that morning, frazzled choir leaders lamenting how they are officially “in the thick of it” and “There’s no turning back.” Add to that the melodramatic caption: “I’m not ready for Holy Week at all!” (The same caption was accompanied by the poster’s own photos of homemade Easter bread and crackers for caviar–as though to say these few gourmet goodies were all my humble kitchen could muster up so far. If that’s what ‘not ready at all’ means, I’m screwed.)

Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I delude myself that what God most wants from me at that moment is to get up and make a batch of Lazarakia–pastry-covered, date-filled nuggets that recall the resurrection of Lazarus, which we celebrate today, the Saturday before Pascha. The event is heralded as a kind of firstfruit of Christ’s own resurrection.

Note: I’ve never made Lazarakia. They are not a staple of our Holy Week repertoire. Further note: I doubt anyone in my family even likes them–we are less the figs-and-dates kind of Greeks and more the all-honey-and-filo-dough-all-the-time kind.

But never mind all that. And never mind my father-in-law is across town, in a slumpy hospital bed, fighting for his life (and, evidently, his right to set fire to his nasal passages?). And never mind that this has been a downward-spiraling battle that has wound its way all through Lent. Never mind that I’ve been in and out of the doctor’s office for my own less-serious-but-nonetheless-needing-to-be-dealt-with-right-now health issues lo these many weeks. Never mind that between all the uncertainty and fatigue, I haven’t made it to a single week-night service since the first week of Lent. Never mind that we’ve kept the fast–barely and lonely, but valiantly. (Not with any of the fun Lenten foods, mind you, but by the seat of our wrinkled-and-unironed-but-thank-God-I-managed-to-do-some-laundry-last-week pants. Read: way too many sickening vegan protein bars en route to the hospital. Also lots of bread.)

Never mind that somewhere, in all the unstructured routinelessness, a kind of latent depression has hardened my heart and home, making every meal and cleaning session and grocery day a torturous struggle. The fridge is nearly empty, now, and even the thought of pulling freezer meals out to thaw seems unappealing to me. (Side question: when did I have the time to stock up on freezer meals?! It seems like another life/ person.)

And underneath it all is an acute and paralyzing sense of failure, as though I’ve let Lent down. Let God down.

Earlier this week, I’d called my spiritual father to update him on my life and sorry excuse of a Lent. I explain how negligent I’ve been, not attending any presanctified Liturgies or Akathists this year. I tell him much of that is due to legitimate, hospital reasons. There were other times, though, when I’d just been overwhelmed by it all. Instead of standing in church and praying, I’d sat on my couch and knitted.

He told me this Lent, my askesis was to be there for my family, as best as my weak human efforts allow. He also told me to fight the temptation that suggests small actions are meaningless. Sometimes all you can do is the next thing that is to be done, however small.

Do what needs doing, he tells me. Be with your family. Comfort the dying. Keep going. And then, give the rest to God.

I tried to take it to heart. But in the back of my mind, I still felt like a failure. “Holy Week will be better,” I vowed.

That was before the most recent stroke. Things were thrust back into chaos mode.

And that’s where I was, this morning. Drowning in expertly filtered Lazarakia pictures, wondering what the next thing to be done even was.

I don’t think I’ve cried at all this Lent, my insides too uncertain for even that. But suddenly, the tears show up, unbeckoned and unannounced. Streams gushing forth in a desert of dryness. Tears for my father-in-law, for the unpredictability of life, the strange and impersonal labyrinth of modern death, the staleness and sadness of all those slumped, lonely strangers I’d seen the last few weeks, living out their final days in endless hospital wards. For lost presanctified liturgies, lost opportunities, lost words, lost time.

I cried, too, because I knew God couldn’t care less about the dang Lazarakia. I cried because there really is nothing in this world to cling to but Christ, His death and resurrection. And that is a lonely, mysterious, harrowing reality. All we are promised is the Resurrection, and before that, the Cross.

I keep scrolling, not really wanting to deal with the tears that fall silently onto my pillow. Until I come across a simple post from a priest friend of mine:

“It’s Lazarus Saturday: Arise and go forth.”

Arise and go forth.

At the same time I’m reading those words, my husband texts me back that I don’t need to come, that he is just waiting to talk to the doctor and will be coming home to rest shortly. Maybe I could go to the grocery store, he suggests, and pick up a leg of lamb.

Just in case, I think. Just in case life throws us for another loop this Holy Week. Just in case this is our last moment of relative calm to stock up on something remotely paschal.

Sometimes, Lent can be tied up into a pretty package that makes a good Instagram post. And that is not trite–along with everything else, God is a God of beauty.

But other times, Lent is the valley of the shadow of death, relentless and eviscerating. It is the belly of the whale. It is the frail awareness that the only (ONLY) comfort we have is that beyond all this, there is the resurrection.

And sometimes that resurrection is preceded by a 40-day-long triumphant trek through liturgies and lovely traditions.

Other times, it is preceded by the faithful act of rising from the tomb of your own grief, making a pilgrimage to the grocery store so your family will maybe have some fresh vegetables to make it through Holy Week and lamb to look forward to.

It is Lazarus Saturday, and although I’d barely know that, I will arise. And I will go forth. Thanks be to God.

 

(Note: I do not mean any offend to anyone who DID have the kind of Lent that allowed for the baking of sundry sweets. No one’s life is easy, and carving out time to do all of that is a kind of faith unto itself.)

12 comments:

  1. I think being part of the Body of Christ means taking turns playing the various positions on the team. Especially during Lent. One year you’re the MVP. Another year you’re on the bench. But the years in between? Maybe you made the most assists but didn’t score any goals. Or maybe you were a cheerleader that year. I’m saying this because YOU are one of the reasons that this has been my BEST LENT EVER, and I’ve been Orthodox for thirty-one years. TIME AND DESPONDENCY and the study guide you developed to go with it were my helper this year. A gift that YOU gave me, because of your faithfulness in doing the work to write and publish it. I didn’t set any goals on my on this Lent, and I asked my pastor for guidance with fasting because of my struggles with eating disorders. His kind and non-legalistic guidance was wonderful. I went to some services. I stayed home from others. But I was kind to myself, and hopefully to others. Be easier on yourself, Nicole. Don’t let Satan steal your joy as we celebrate the Triumphal Entry tomorrow and experience Christ’s passion this week. And also remember on Pascha, St. John Chrysostom’s homily. It doesn’t matter what hour you show up. Just show up. Thanks so much for your candor in this blog post. Forgive me.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Susan 🙂 I’m glad the book and the study guide were part of your Lent. I am being kind to myself, no worries 🙂 I wrote the post in part because I think there is an abundance of material out there that can unintentionally distract from the meaning of Lent/ our faith in general. It’s tempting to believe that we have to ‘get through’ the inconvenient stuff in our lives so that we can go to church services or do the Orthodox things. When really it’s the other way around. We go to church, we fast, we do all the things and pray all the prayers so that, when the rubber meets the road, we will be able to face death with hope–whether that death is literal/ physical (as in, sitting with someone on their sickbed or deathbed) or the smaller deaths of life (recovering from illness at home, taking care of littles, doing the unseen and unsung work). The sermon you mention by St. John Chrysostom has come to mind, as well, but I think the thing I was struggling with when I wrote the post was what do we even mean by _showing up_ at the last hour? Some times in our lives we have to redefine what we mean by showing up. I will be very lucky this week if I can show up at all in the literal sense for church etc. But there are other ways of showing up, and they aren’t lesser. I don’t know. It’s not brain science for me but somehow when it’s the path I’m on, it’s a newly comforting lesson. Especially for a very goal- and plan-oriented person like me. Anyway. I’m rambling 🙂 I’m not really sure where I was going with all of this!!! 😀

  2. I have been there, and it seems to me that Great Lent and all of our fasting seasons and traditions are designed to inject an artificial, or at least, imposed asceticism into life when it isn’t there naturally. The more effective ascesis is the natural and real one, when you really are serving the sick and sitting beside the dying. That’s the ascesis that makes a difference to another, that answers Christ’s call to feed the hungry and to visit those in prison. That’s the real stuff, those are the real sacrifices, you’ve been making this season. Those lovely and picturesque Lenten traditions everyone else are doing are the things we do to recreate that feeling you already have. We are artificially creating a situation that calls us to self-sacrifice and to develop emotional endurance, but you are experiencing the real deal.

    I can’t help but think of Mother Maria Skobotskova. (Her feast day will be March 30, in fact). She raised eyebrows because she seemed to feel so strongly that spending time with the sick and the dying was preferable to attending services…

    May God grant you a blessed Pascha. Whether April 8 feels like Pascha or not (depending on how it’s going with the family, etc.) know that God sees your efforts and your love, and you are doing things that really matter. You are building up rewards in heaven as well as spiritual rewards here on earth.

    Keeping all of you in prayer!

    1. Elissa, I’ve been thinking a lot about your comment since I first read it the other day. I found your distinction between “artificial” and actual asceticism helpful. I think these two forms can be compared to the learning objectives in schools and classrooms. A lot of teaching is creating artificial environments and situations to learn certain skills. Like simulation almost. And the hope is that once the training wheels are off, you’ll be able to go out into the world to apply those skills. Lent, after all, is a school of repentance. But it’s easy to turn Lent and the other external practices of faith into ends in themselves, especially when you’re like me and very task- and plan-oriented. Last week was incredibly stressful b/c in my mind I was trying to figure out how to keep my normal routine, gear up for holy week, AND help my family out without letting that cramp my lenten style. Then I was just like, I can’t be stretched this thin, plus I felt like my husband just needed more help. So this week, I’m just letting the cards fall where they may and doing the very best with whatever the day brings. And not forcing to fit it into a pre-configured mold of how I think things ought be. With that is the awareness that THIS is actually my life–the inconvenient and out-of-routine things I was trying to shortchange until now. That’s actually my ‘present moment’ (did I write a book on this at some point?). It is sad to think about missing out on traditions and services and beauty. But it is freeing to go to bed at night (or in the middle of the day after being up all night…) knowing you were somewhat faithful to the things you were entrusted with that day. And I realized this morning–wait a second, Lent has been going on for like 1500 years. Pascha has been going on since the beginning. It’s not going to fall apart without my being there. It’ll be there next year, and Lord willing so will I. And that, too, is the beauty of knowing other people are out there in church, picking up the loose threads and moving the timeless faith tradition forward one year.

  3. Dear Nichole,
    Thank you for being so vulnerable and sharing all of this. I wish I could say the same as you, because even though my lent might have been Instagram worthy, I find myself with endless doubts. Last year I committed a terrible sin during great lent, but as a result I could identify with the sinful woman we commemorate today. This year, on the other hand, I am much more like judas. I’ve experienced Christ’s grace in the pre-sanctified liturgies, but I hardly recognize Him as my messiah.

    I can only pray that he will help my unbelief and forgive my vanity and pride..

    Christ is Risen!

    1. Sorry for my tardiness in responding to this! I hope by now you’ve had a blessed resurrection–Christ is risen! Lent and Pascha seem to find us where we are. What you are saying about alternately finding yourself one year in the Samaritan woman and this year in the figure of Judas resonates with me. In a similar way, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, is always a kind of indicator to me. I always seem to identify with different characters every year–usually between the prodigal Son and the older brother. Try as I might, it’s usually a telling symptom of the kind of Lent I’m about to have–grateful and on the road to contrition or self-awareness, or laboring against haughtiness and resentment. Or am I still in exile, too attached to my own sins… Anyway. Christ is risen. Nicole

  4. Thank you for writing & sharing this. My children are sick this week and we are missing all the services and it has made me even more unhappy than “my babies feel bad” unhappy. The reminder of real ascesis, to get up and serve my family cheerfully and not remind them that I’m missing Holy Week because of their illness, that is a valuable lesson for me right now.

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth! I hope by now you’ve had a blessed Pascha and that the kids are better! Christ is risen!

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