Father, How Do I Keep Lent?

A note from Fr. Justin, pastor of St. Athanasius:

Going into Great Lent, I often am asked, “Father, how ought I keep Lent? What do I give up?”

The simplest response I give is: “Follow the rules.”  The basic guidelines for Lent, in terms of diet, are rather straightforward and can be found here.  In general, they boil down to avoiding all meat and dairy products. In the first week of Lent (Clean Week) and the week preceding Pascha (Holy Week,) Orthodox eat as little as possible, greatly restricting amounts to the bare (but safe) minimum. Olive oil and alcohol are permitted on the weekends and on certain feast days. And–let me be clear–I truly believe it is a good practice to attend carefully to these guidelines.

However, if we make the mistake of boiling down our lenten journey to mere diet, we greatly cheat ourselves and misunderstand what the Church is giving us in this season. St. Ignatius Brianchininov lamented that many strict Orthodox Christians in his day, by focusing only on the culinary aspects of the Fast, had reduced the Faith down to nothing “but a bowl of beans.”  What are some additional things we might note to help us broaden out our sense of what Lent is about?

  • We remove things from our life. We don’t just fast from food. We also are invited to adapt our lifestyle considerably, as our household sees fit. What are some other ways we might fast?
    • Media: Might we not consider fasting from television, internet, secular music on the radio, talk radio, certain types of news, limiting certain types of social media?
    • Treats: Might we not consider cutting out certain treats we come to rely on? Sugar? Desserts? Extra coffee or substances we feel in any way dependent on?
    • Words: Might we not make renewed effort to cut off needless words, as St. John Chrysostom exhorts us to do? (In some places, believers even try to take time each day to maintain silence. It might not be possible for everybody; but it’s something to consider.)
  • We add other things to our life.  The lenten season presents us with many opportunities to increase our piety–to augment our spiritual life. (And we need to plan these additions now–before Lent begins!)
    • Corporate Prayer: Clean Week, Lent, and Holy Week present us with many opportunities to pray corporately. Orthodox lenten services are, in and of themselves, theological “feasts.”  See our parish calendar and plan ahead now which services you will attend.
    • Personal Prayer: By removing distractions from our life (see above) we generally have more time to pray at home. Personal prayer includes everything from prayer with a prayer book, to devotional chanting of the Psalms and the recitation of the Jesus Prayer, to spontaneous prayer. We might consider reworking our prayer list to more faithfully intercede for family, god-family, the parish family, friends, and co-workers.
    • Spiritual Reading: Again, with the extra time provided by removing various distractions from our life, we are given the chance to double-down with our spiritual reading. Spiritual reading includes, first, the prayerful reading of the Scriptures, as well as additional reading from the church fathers and contemporary spiritual writers. (See the priest for some ideas if you don’t know where to begin!)
    • Renewal of Repentance: In general, Orthodox believers ought to regularly make Sacramental Confession. The season of Lent, however, places Repentance, writ large, front and center in our consciousness. Every night, we are invited to examine ourselves and confess our sins to the Lord in prayer. Sacramental Confession flows naturally from such an orientation. Why not go ahead and plan a couple appointments for Sacramental Confession today–perhaps one early and one late in Lent?
    • Almsgiving: One of the major aids, the fathers teach us, in making a sincere repentance and moving towards Christ–is the giving of alms.  Almsgiving, which goes beyond the giving of tithes to the church, is characterized by extending either material or temporal help in the name of Christ to those in need. Such opening of the wallet often leads to an opening of our heart!
  • We focus on the Spirit without neglecting the Flesh.  One of the great insights that the Orthodox Church celebrates without end is the union of God and Man–the Incarnation. This “incarnational” principle is not restricted to the Person of Jesus Christ but animates our whole approach to life and salvation. The physical is not left behind in the quest for the spiritual. At the same time, how we handle the physical is conditioned by “the Spirit.” In Lent, we are reminded of the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians: “The letter kills but the spirit gives life.” Our observance of Great Lent must always be grounded in the mercy of the Father, who sends his Son into the world to deliver us from the power of sin, death, and the devil.  And so we always try to bear in mind that the lenten fast is not some kind of “law” but rather an invitation to take up the Cross and follow Christ. Lent is an opportunity, graciously furnished by our Lord, to stretch ourselves and meet the Savior. The Spirit–not the law–governs our observance of Lent.  Because we have this dynamic understand of Lent, we can note that many of our brothers and sisters, usually with the blessing of the priest, will keep Lent in different ways, according to their strength.

By way of conclusion, it ought to go without saying that, no matter how well (or not well) you or I keep the Lent, we never judge our brother or sister. Period. Lent is a time for judging oneself and for turning to the Lord God. It is a chance to fail (because, yes, every year I fail in some way in keeping my lenten goals) and, having fallen short, to repent, to embrace our loving Savior, and to realize that only by following his humility can we rise with him in his Holy Resurrection!

I wish you all a blessed lenten journey.  May whatever strictness you embrace (and I hope you do!) be always conditioned by the Spirit.        Yours in the Lord,     Fr. Justin





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