The Right Attitude for Lent
by Rev. Vladimir Berzonsky
Before the Great Lent begins the Orthodox Church reserves three weeks in order to encourage in its members a proper mental preparedness towards the season of intense prayer, meditation and fasting. We must learn not merely to accept lent as a spiritual obligation, an intrusion into a life of fun and diversion, but rather we must learn to welcome its discipline if we are to benefit by it spiritually.
Let us first mention certain misconceptions regarding this period: the great danger of keeping a strict lent is that one tends to become self-righteous. Wisely the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee is put at the very start of the Triodion Cycle to impress upon our minds the distastefulness of self-righteousness. It would be far better not to observe the lent than to have it result in an arrogance, a ‘holier-than-you’ attitude.
Neither is lent intended for scoring points in heaven. The hairs on our head may be numbered, as the Lord tells us; but it is highly unlikely the angels keep track of whether we had a cheese sandwich or boloney for lunch. We sometimes tend to keep the letter of the lent and fail to develop an over-view, a general framework for understanding why we deprive ourselves of certain foods and pleasures.
What we are about is to know ourselves. To know ourselves we must withdraw from the world, to go into the desert as Jesus did following his baptism. It is essential that we extricate our inner selves from our surroundings, if we are to have an over-view of our lives. If we cannot physically retreat, we must at least retreat mentally. This we are able to do by the very fact that we are human beings. For example, a fish in an aquarium is alive in every sense that we are who observe him; with one exception. As far as we know, he is not able to transcend himself, in the way we are. Not only are we able to look at ourselves from a distance, we must analyze and evaluate ourselves to be truly human.
Fasting is simply to make us hungry, enabling us to evaluate the person we really are; how enslaved we are to that drive which draws us against our will to the refrigerator! How we cannot think about anything but the growlings of the stomach! “I’ll get a headache, I just must eat something,” you say. You’ve learned something about yourself.
We must see how we’ve surrendered the gift of freedom God intended for us, as we reach out to our cigarettes or bottle, refusing to evade the reality of our slavery until we hate the fetters enough that we will admit that we are imprisoned by our habits, then make the difficult struggle involved in setting ourselves free.
I am convinced, however, that concentration on ourselves is no longer sufficient. We must mature into a new awareness of life around us, developing a respect for nature and all of God’s creatures not previously manifested among us. There is a need for a new attitude towards property, both ours and others, a reverence for living beings over institutions and man-made laws; we must have the courage to analyze and perhaps reevaluate our priority of values. What should be borne uppermost in our minds, nevertheless, is that true, effective and worthwhile change takes place in hearts and consciences, and only their bearers can make them.
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America