“…and I am now standing at your gates, Jerusalem.”

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Every once in awhile (I am not a theologian, so don’t know the exact occurrence) the eastern and western worlds join together for Lent. Today marks Ash Wednesday, when the western Christians join the eastern Christians and Orthodox, who began Lent on Monday. And it is so joyful to walk together during this season of preparation and a cleansing of our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies as we prepare to walk with Christ to Calvary and weep, and then celebrate with Him His Divine, and glorious, Resurrection.

This year I am doing a new Lenten Study and I am so excited. (It is by http://www.orthodoxmom.com and I highly recommend her blog and her Facebook page, too). I am not in the least artsy, as those who know me well will attest to. But this year, I am keeping a notebook and journals. One is a journal about the Psalms, and another is called the “Gratitude Journal.” And each day’s assignment offers us a time to reflect upon our readings and the things we are grateful for (it is a directed reflection). The first three days have been staggering for me, to say the least. The author of the study has carefully weaved our Scripture readings together and I have already learned so much in such a short time (which is why I was compelled to post).

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Lent is a time when we reflect, we pray, and we fast. And through these processes, we hope to come to a better place in our walk with Christ. It is a time when we try to still that chaos that is the world, and spend time in quiet reflection and prayer. In the Scriptures (Matthew 17:19-21), Christ admonishes the Apostles for their lack of faith in trying to exorcise demons:

“Then the disciples came to Jesus privately, and said, “Why weren’t we able to cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your unbelief. For most certainly I tell you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. But this kind doesn’t go out except by prayer and fasting.”

There are times when simple faith is not enough to move the mountains we face, nor exorcise the demons in our lives. We need to pray – and fast. And that is an integral part of Lent. We deny ourselves all this instant gratification. Of course there are many who also admonish that if you Fast from food, but gossip or slander someone, how are you a good Christian? How is that fasting from the demons inside us all? Lust, Greed, Gluttony, Envy, Anger, Pride, and Sloth are characterized as the 7 Deadly Sins. What can we do to eradicate them from our lives? How can we lessen the impact they have upon our souls? The Roman Catholic Church teaches us the Capital Virtues, which counteract each of these sins. They are: Chastity, Generosity, Temperance, Brotherly Love, Meekness, Humility, Diligence. How do we get these virtues? We pray. We starve the enemy of our flesh by denying it the thing it wants. Sloth and Gluttony, I have said many times, sit on either shoulder for me. How do I starve them? I set an alarm clock, I make a list, and I tackle my daily duties with zealous abandon, fighting sloth! This year, I took Facebook off my phone. I am trying to distance myself from social media. It can become a crutch and every bit a sickness, like an addiction. It sucks your time and adds to your sloth. What can you be accomplishing if you spend hours on a computer, reading things that are not necessary, nor edifying, but gauged to our interests so they suck us in? What desire am I feeding? How many sites do I need to go to? How many ways can I distract myself from my life? And how can I combat that? I sometimes have to help my lesser self (or that bad demon on my shoulder) to become my better self (the angel on the other shoulder) by denying myself – on purpose. Gluttony? Well, fasting sure helps with that. We are returning to Whole30 and who knew there was a Whole30 support group for those to use during Lent? So excited to find that! We have to work with what we know to be true about ourselves, in order to help ourselves. It’s why I took Facebook off my phone, along with lots of apps and groups. I make it harder for myself to get to it – like putting that bag of Oreos on top of the fridge, behind the cookbooks, making it harder for me to indulge myself. And to be honest, this year for Lent, there are no cookies in the house to begin with. I know Gluttony all too well. It is one of the many demons I constantly and consistently struggle with. And it is one of the ones I desire most to conquer this Lenten fasting period. I need to control my desire for food and replace it for a desire that will benefit my soul.

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Lent is our eternal struggle condensed into just 40 days. But the Church, in her wisdom, gives us this time every year. We are not expected to become Saints overnight. I love that about my faith. I try, sincerely, to make the right choices day in and day out. Some days I get it pretty good and can lay my head on my pillow with a clear conscious. Some nights, not so much. “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” is often recited as I finally get to sleep.

During my reading for this Lent, I read an article about forgiveness. In the Eastern and Orthodox Churches, we begin Lent on Forgiveness Sunday. On this day (the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday) we actually make lines around the Church and each parishioner approaches each other parishioner, asking for and giving, forgiveness. I can honestly say that the first time I participated in this, I wept as I made my way around the Church. How humbling and how beautiful. But when we think about forgiveness, what is it? In this article by Metropolitan Anthony of Sorozh (+2003)  in the Orthodox Heritage Vol 05, Issue 2, February 2007, he says, “Forgiveness begins at the moment when, realizing the frailty of others as I realize mine, the need of others for help, for mercy, and for protection, I am prepared together with them to bear the burden of their weakness, their frailty or their sinfulness. Forgiveness begins at the moment when I take it upon myself to put up with others, without waiting for them to change, to put up with them as they are in order to make lighter their burden and to make it possible for them to eventually change.” He goes on later to say, “Every one of us, side by side with them, have people who are difficult to bear, who are a cause of suffering, of misery or of anger; we can undo this anger and outgrow this misery if we make our task, the task of our life, our business, to carry their burden together with them, to be the person who, wounded and offended, and rejected, will turn to God and say, ‘Lord, forgive, because I bear no grudge, I want to become and remain solid with this person in his frailty and his sinfulness. I will not stand in judgement against him, and I am not yet capable of doing this. You do this for me: do not endorse my judgement, do not endorse the condemnation I rashly have pronounced, do not stand by me in my anger. Stand by the person who has done wrong, because he, because she needs help, forgiveness and healing, for that very reason.'” forgiveness

And so we begin Lent by learning to forgive. Truly forgive. This quote above stunned me into silence. It caused me to rethink what I know about forgiving others. Our Psalm readings were full of the forgiveness from God. And I realized I was actually excited about Lent, and that I was preparing for this Lent to be one of change for me. I was getting a notebook and making dividers; I even got stickers and colored pens! I bought a new journal and yesterday, I began writing things about the Psalms. And I was happy – happy about a task of cleaning my heart and soul and becoming more in tune with God. Because I know I can only become better through this process. As I eagerly began to read the Psalms, I read, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ And now I am standing within your gates, Jerusalem.” (Pslam 123). And reading that, I smiled. I had been looking forward to this journey, and now I was on the doorstep. And we are all fully into Lent, as of today.

I am apprehensive (as change is always hard) and exultant at the prospect at becoming a better me. God is not done with me, yet. And I know He is not done with any of us, either. Thanks be to God for this opportunity. Blessed and Holy Lent, everyone.

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“…grant me to see my own sins…”

The readings at Mass last night were some of my favorites. They reminded us that God wants us to trust Him. That worrying cannot add a day to our lives. (Matthew 6:26). Our priest spoke about his early days, as a new driver. He was so concerned with staying in his lane, he would focus on the lines, often missing what was around him, and even what was in front of him.

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From this example, I readily laughed at all the times I, too, get so concerned about lines, that I am missing what is around me. Every year, I endeavor to keep all the rules of the Great Fast – during Great Lent. One great quote I love is an exchange between two people. One asked the other, “How do you plan to keep the fast?” And the other replied, “By paying attention to what is on my own plate.” Sometimes I get so concerned over thoughts like, “Am I doing this right?” “Am I fasting enough?” “Did I remember my prayers?” “Are my kids doing it right/enough/with the right attitude?” And somewhere in there, I am forgetting that I need to prepare my heart.

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” Matthew 5:21-23

The Book of Matthew exhorts us to leave those Pharisaical ideals and be simpler. How can you fast and do prayers and make prostrations, when you are in a long-standing fight with your brother? Your friend? Your boss at work?

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This Great Lent, which for those of us who practice in the Eastern Catholic/Orthodox Churches, began today with “Clean Monday,” I am trying to pursue different sorts of Lenten practices. I am going to get rid of behaviors that are not good for me, and I am going to foment those that help me. The lines I follow will probably not look like your lines, as in Father’s story last night about driving.

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Up here in Alaska, the lines in the roads are pretty much blurred, at best. We have snow. Then we have ice on top of snow, with some more snow on top of that, just to make driving more interesting. Last night we had some thawing, along with some amazing road plowing, and we could see the roads, and the lines. About 7:00am today, it started with icy-fog and crystals floating around. By 8:00 am, we had falling snow. It wasn’t even swirling; just falling straight down. It has been doing that for the past 4 hours. We have at least another inch or so on top of that morning ice fog. The lines are gone, again. So we make our own lines; our own lanes. And so it goes until Spring Thaw (which is looking more and more like May). You learn to ad-lib and be flexible while driving. And I am taking this analogy about snow driving without lines to my approach to Lent. I will be flexible and learning to adapt to new ways of looking at it; looking to my own plate, so to speak.

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I have had priests and spiritual fathers caution me over the years to try adding something, rather than giving something up. Yes, we should curtail our diets and definitely fully fast on specific days the Church requires, but generally, we should work at adding things to our lives that we normally leave out or ignore. How often do we spend time in silence, perhaps reading a book by one of the Early Church Fathers? How often do we sit in silent prayer, perhaps praying the Rosary or the Jesus Prayer? Have you read through the Psalms and made notes? One Orthodox writer I love suggests keeping a journal of everything we are grateful for. And also one on our readings of the Psalms and other spiritual works each Lent. It helps to journal, to see how we grow. Each year we can give up chocolate or sugar or coffee…we can abstain from foods, but what about behaviors? In the words above, there are ideas of things we can abstain from during Lent.

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But what can we add, to make Lent more meaningful? Have we forgiven those who have wronged us? Have we sought forgiveness from those we have wronged? Do we repent for the evil in our lives and what we have done to add to it? Do we abstain from harmful music or movies or books? How can we develop a culture of true, Christian love for one another when we read “50 Shades of Gray” or go to those types of movies? How does a book like that generate so many sales? And it is just the first in a series. People laud it as a love story. Really? (The book sold 29 million print and 15 million digital copies in 2012. It topped the 2012 best-seller lists in the categories adult fiction and romance). What sort of love are we sharing with others? I’ve often blogged about that hole in our hearts that only God can fill. I believe this example shows us where people lack spirituality in their lives. For those of us who identify as Christians, how are we presenting ourselves to others? Do you know that today, you may be the only “Christ” people see – perhaps ever? Especially during Lent, we need to turn inward and focus on our personal relationship to our Spirituality and our core beliefs, so we can present ourselves to others.

“Ever the lawyer, Tertullian the apologist subscribed to the view that the best defense is a good offense. His treatises To the Gentiles and Apology directly attacked pagan beliefs and practices as superstitious and immoral, and argued that the Christian life as taught in Scripture and practiced in the church was morally superior. He imagined pagans looking at Christians and saying, “Look . . . how they love one another (for they themselves [pagans] hate one another); and how they are ready to die for each other (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).” (Tertullian, as quoted on the website, Christianhistoryinstitute.org)

Can you imagine if people knew we were Christian just by watching us? How we drive? How we shop? How we live in our homes? How we treat others in the workplace? In our families? And all the other interactions we have daily? How can we make Lent a time for us to reconnect to our base in our faith?

This year, for the first time in many years, I am going to participate with the Roman Church and try to attend some Lenten offerings at our local parish. I haven’t see the “Stations of the Cross” or prayed those prayers in decades, literally. I haven’t participated in a lot of things over the past few decades. I dearly, dearly miss our Liturgy of the PreSanctified Gifts. And I dearly miss our prostrations during the Prayer of St. Ephraim. I carry that prayer with me always. Our Eastern practices offer us so many opportunities to reflect and repent. Almost daily services, like Vespers, where we can pray the prayers of the Church with others who are working on their own salvation. Salvation is not an event; it is a process. And one that the Church offers us to work on over and over again. We are blessed with the words of the early Saints and Martyrs; those closer to the time when Christ walked the earth; simpler ages. I love the stories of St. Ephraim, the Syrian. And the writings and prayers he left us are priceless. “Lord and Master of my life…” is just a magical way to address God in prayer.

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I will always pray that prayer. This year, I will revisit some other prayers I have long ago treasured. It is beautiful to know our Church is truly universal and we can gain from all her rites and prayers, songs and chants, and places of worship. This year, I am praying for enlightenment and a different approach to life that will stay with me. And perhaps I will find my own lines in the snow. And perhaps I will look up and see what is right in front of me, keeping my eyes on my own plate and not the plate of others. I think that is a good start, here on Clean Monday.