“…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.

“Please forgive me…”

Holy Season of LentForgiveness Sunday was yesterday; today is Clean Monday. In many traditions, these next three days of the Lenten Fast are among the strictest.  We try, during the first three days of Lent (in the Orthodox tradition) to take nothing before Vespers on Wednesday but water.  Well, I am just not that good.  My blood sugar would go all catty-wampus (as my grandma would say) and I would pass out or something.  It is not that I am unwilling, but the flesh is very weak! We are trying some new ideas with fasting this year and we are excited.  It is so fun to learn all of the many aspects of universality our Church has to offer.  Learning new ways of doing things and new traditions from other countries.  I love it – it adds immeasurably to my faith.

At Forgiveness Sunday yesterday, we had a wonderful parish experience.  We had Divine Liturgy, and then a wonderful pot luck meal together, followed by Forgiveness Vespers.  It is our first Byzantine experience, as we are Melkite, which is an eastern-rite Church, but with a decidedly Middle Eastern flair to it.  Our parish here is Ruthenian, and culturally eastern European.  During the Vespers itself, much was sung and prayed about forgiveness, and it was nice; contemplative at times, too. But the most touching aspect of it came at the end. Our Priest stood up there in front of the Holy Doors, asking us to forgive him, and through him, all the clergy. He mentioned several times that people often think clergy are angels.  He laughed and said, “I am no angel!”  And then he asked us to remember that none of us are angels!  He then had each person in the parish approach him and asked them to forgive him, and they asked him to forgive them.  They received the oil of Mirovanije and and then took their place next to him, forming a line around the inside of the church.  Each person, in turn, asked each person for forgiveness. I cannot properly do justice to what a moving experience this was for both my husband and myself.

anointing1I love the tradition of mirovanije and how wonderful it feels (and it usually smells good, too!) to be blessed and to share that blessing with forgiveness. It was so very moving.  Unfortunately for me, I was plagued with back problems yesterday…too much sitting on hard chairs, I guess.  After sitting through Divine Liturgy, then having the pot luck and then Vespers, my back had just had it (it was my second attempt at going outside the house since I hurt my back two weeks ago).  So I received the oil and blessing, exchanged forgiveness with Fr. Michael, and promptly went back to my spot.  By this time, I was actually weeping.  It was a combination of forgiveness, pain, and the fear my back was as bad as it was two weeks ago.  But as I sort of laid on my side in the pew, so many people came to me, wanting to exchange forgiveness.  They got out of line and came to me, hugging me and asking for forgiveness. I cannot even tell you how humbling and beautifully freeing it was.  Of course, being the mushy person I am, I cried all the more!

40 Days logoAs we take this journey together during Lent, I wanted to share once again how beautiful and freeing forgiveness can be.  And that we truly make no progress with the fasting, the praying, the attendance at prayers, if we have rancor, hatred, anger…any of those ugly, festering, emotions…deep in our soul.  Lent becomes meaningless, really, if we do not approach it with a clean heart; a heart ready and willing to be open to God working in our lives.

As Orthowiki defines it: Liturgically, Clean Monday—and thus Great Lent itself—begins on the preceding (Sunday) night,at a special service called Forgiveness Vespers, which culminates with the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness, at which all present will bow down before one another and ask forgiveness. In this way, the faithful begin Great Lent with a clean conscience, with forgiveness, and with renewed Christian love. The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week,” and it is customary to go to confession during this week, and to clean the house thoroughly (or to have it clean before the beginning of the Fast).

The theme of Clean Monday is set by the Old Testament reading appointed to be read at the Sixth Hour on this day (Isaiah 1:1-20), which says in part:

Wash yourselves and ye shall be clean; put away the wicked ways from your souls before Mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well. Seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, consider the fatherless, and plead for the widow. Come then, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as snow; and though they be red like crimson, I will make them white as wool (v. 16-18).”

So today, being Clean Monday, I am trying to get my home together.  Working carefully, and trying to prepare to enter fully into Lent.  It truly makes the entire “Spring Cleaning” philosophy completely different for me.  First, I learned about the desire to clean my home with the increase in daylight and, second, the impending blessing of our home (in the process of cleaning for the priest to come, I injured my back) and now with the start of Lent, yet another reason to “Spring Clean”!  Isn’t God and His Church awesome??  So many reasons to do what comes naturally.

I just wanted to share a short post on Forgiveness Vespers and what an incredible start it gave me for Lent. I will be fasting from media and noise this Lent, so postings will be sparse.  May your Lenten period prepare you for an incredible Pascha and may God bless you each of these wonderful 40 days!

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