A longtime parishioner, dreading the rigors of Great Lent, approached his priest with a question. “Father, is there anything special I can do to deepen my spiritual life this season?”
“Yes,” the priest replied. “Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.”
“Every year it’s the same thing,” the man complained. “Isn’t there something different I can do?”
“Nope,” said the priest. “Just prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.”
The man’s question is understandable. The Church’s recipe for Lent is so…boring. And it doesn’t take much for the shine to wear off any beginner’s sense of novelty and zeal. (On a busy day, the first lunch stop at a drive-through window usually does the trick.) The lenten disciplines remind me of a garage-sale find that hung on my kitchen wall when my children were young:
Same Old, Same Old
Why can’t we mix things up a bit? Maybe a new method for spiritual growth could provide better, faster, more lasting results. Instead of a prayer rope, why can’t I wear a WWJD bracelet? My parish could become a more seeker-friendly, emerging church if we hosted a Purpose-Driven Lent or discovered some forgotten scripture passage and built our lives around it, like The Prayer of Jabez.
For those of you who were spared this fad back in the early aughts, author Bruce Wilkinson found a few verses buried in 1 Chronicles: “And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!’ So God granted him what he requested” (verses 9-10). The book’s tantalizing promise of blessing from daily recitation of this prayer spawned truckloads of merch, including key chains, mugs, backpacks, scented candles, mouse pads, and my personal favorite, the Prayer of Jabez necktie. (I am not making this up.)
That trend came and went without making a blip on the spiritual radar of the Orthodox Church. The historic Church remains shockingly uninterested in product placement, new movements, or keeping us entertained. Instead, for 2,000 years she has continued to invite us to follow Lent’s well-worn path—a simple working out of the commands of Jesus in Matthew 6. In this passage He tells us how to give (verses 1-4, 19-21); how to pray, with special attention to both seeking God’s forgiveness and forgiving others (verses 5-15); and how to fast (verses 16-18).
This is a highly unmarketable approach to spiritual growth.
It’s tough stuff, and it’s definitely driven by a purpose: Great Lent, in each of its three components, is designed to give us greater awareness of our dependence on God. It is a time for spiritual spring cleaning, when we focus not on promises of abundance but on the dark corners of our souls, where all the dust bunnies have gathered.
Yet the focus is not negative. Lent is known as a season of Bright Sadness—sad, because we have fallen short in our lives with Christ, and bright, because we repent and seek God with utter confidence in His immeasurable love and grace.
Our emphasis tends to be on the dietary details of the season. How much hummus can I really consume over the course of six weeks? Many of us think fasting is the hardest part, but for some people, food is not that big a deal.
A slim, healthy friend once told me, “I hate eating!” She was serious. (I can’t relate.) Mealtime was an interruption in her busy day, and the planning and preparation of food distracted her from her lengthy to-do list. Although she was not Orthodox, she was a deeply devoted Christian, and fasting as a spiritual discipline was not a struggle.
However, Great Lent’s emphasis on more frequent prayer and longer daily readings would be a challenge for her. For the task-oriented person, individual prayers at home and additional services at church are disruptive. The prayer component of Lent hits such people in an area that needs healing—personal control over the calendar.
For others, almsgiving (a wonderfully old-fashioned word still retained in the Church) is the area of greatest struggle.
An elderly relative of mine always made time for church and choir practice and also showed great personal discipline in her eating habits, with only an occasional ice-cream splurge in her small-portioned, teetotal life. As a child of the Great Depression, she didn’t spend much on herself, and she knew how to live by the old adage, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without.”
This is a laudable attitude towards material goods—and also very eco-friendly—but her frugality played out in her life as a lack of generosity. Even in her middle-class adulthood, far from the poverty of her early years, she would object to giving someone a ride to church if the stranded person required a longer drive. Saving gas money was more important than lending a helping hand. Her propensity for hanging on to stuff—file cabinets filled with decades-old financial records, clothing from the 1960s, and costume jewelry that she never wore—grew, predictably, into a tendency toward hoarding in old age.
The Church’s three-part recipe addresses this type of soul sickness too through the command to give. Our fists can grow tight over the years, through seasons of bounty and unemployment, promotions and medical expenses, children’s soccer fees and empty nests. But during Lent, we are reminded that God is our supplier, and the money that we don’t spend on meat, dairy, and alcohol can bless others in need.
Great Lent is the same process every year—a long slog through the tried and true. And year in, year out, the Church understands the areas where we tend to veer off course. Am I driven by my belly? Do I place my priorities ahead of time with God? Do I give of my resources joyfully? Likely I fall short in at least one area, and the Church prescribes time-tested remedies for my soul sickness, turning my aim back to God.
The Church uses the old to give us renewal. Through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, we learn new things about ourselves—and relearn the truth that we have not yet conquered our weaknesses and sins.
Good strength to you this lenten season.