“..to banquet with angels…”

Lent is really here. Wow. In the West, tomorrow is the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. I have friends visiting Venice, Italy right now and the costumes for Fat Tuesday are actually beautiful!! So many places really do Fat Tuesday in a large way!! (Which is today). Tomorrow, I am sending my youngest son off to a job site about 5 hours north of us, until the last week of April. I am going to miss that kid. He is funny, and is always so happy. We love having him around. So for his send-off I am making boneless ribs in my Instant Pot. If you do not have an Instant Pot, well, you could do it just fine in a crock pot. But I love the variety and convenience of my Instant Pot. Ribs come out amazing. Seriously amazing.

I bought the smaller one for myself and my girlfriend bought me the larger one (Black Friday sales!!!). Why do I need the larger one? Leftovers! LOL! When it is just my husband and myself, the smaller one is fine. What I love about the Instant Pot is you can sauté and prep in the same pot used to cook in the Instant Pot electronic shell. Less to wash. I put it all in the dishwasher, except for the large, outer pot with the electronics. But the inner pot, the lid, and the gasket for the lid all go into the dishwasher. Clean up is amazing! You can see in the photo above, there is a slight difference between the 6 and 8 quart size (I know, 2 quarts, but I am giving you a visual aid here). Soups and stews are incredible in the IP. I made this wonderful chicken dish with chicken breasts you sauté in the pan, deglaze it, place the chicken on the trivet, and add spices and broth and off you go! For the rest of it, you added potatoes and onions partway through the cooking. It was so good. So, as I type this, ribs are thawing on the stove top (I sit my frozen stuff there because I have a puppy. Sigh. He is so tall he can reach anything, except the very back of the stovetop!) and my son is gathering his supplies and washing some clothes; packing up his truck with his tools and things he will need (like his X-Box, games, and movies) and winter gear. Where he is going it is averaging about -1 or so, with night time temps into the the -28 range. Part of the fun of living and working in the Arctic Circle!!

My one-year-old Standard Poodle, Kolbe. He is so tall, he can literally eat off our dining table, the counters in the kitchen, the bathroom counters, the tops of our dressers, as well as a sundry list of other places. He is so smart, he figured out how to open our laundry hamper and sift through it for my husband’s socks. So now I have to place another laundry basket on top of it, upside down, to lock down the hamper lid. His breeder just had another litter of full sibling puppies, and for a brief second, I was tempted. Thankfully my sanity returned and I chose not to go for another one. He is the smartest dog we have ever owned. He does not shed, nor smell like a dog, even soaking wet. He gets wet a lot. He is the best guard dog and also wants to please. He loves training. Agility is coming this summer. I am excited for it. But he does hamper how I prep for dinners. And the Instant Pot he leaves alone. LOL. Thank goodness. Almost time to pop in some ribs!!! Fat Tuesday!!

This Lenten season, we are already fasting from so much, in the foods aspect, as part of our efforts to become healthier. And as I have shared over past posts, I think that giving up coffee or chocolate is fine; walking away from social media is great. It is a sacrifice for many that is really hard. I truly get that. But I have also learned that adding a discipline to my routine can also be a wonderful Lenten tool. I read more. I pray more. I dive into my journaling and prayer companion. I add more that is spiritually uplifting and challenging to my life. I attend more services that are provided during Lent. And hopefully, these added things can become a good habit to incorporate into my life, long after Pascha has come and gone. I know that reading the Church Fathers, the Saints, even some modern theological writings, puts me into a Lenten frame of mind. Availing ourselves of modern technology and listening to Podcasts is a wonderful way to incorporate more spiritually uplifting and focusing works into our lives. Think of the time spent commuting – switch from music on the radio to something like Patristic Nectar’s podcasts, or Father Andrew Stephen Damick’s podcasts, or Father Barnabas Powell, or one of the many wonderful podcasts offered through Ancient Faith Radio. Giving up food is just a part of what it means to prepare during Lent.

I find that saying goodbye to some foods in my diet, to control the portions I do consume, and to be mindful of my plate, helps me develop more of a laser focus on what is important in this life. We cannot afford, for our personal salvific process, to be concerned with what others do for Lent. If someone shares that they gave up caffeine, support them. Those headaches when you choose to be rid of caffeine are no joke! Offer prayers for those who you know are struggling during Lent. Pray for a transformative Lent for others. Sometimes Pascha arrives and we are ho-hum. Sometimes it just becomes another long service we get through. Sometimes it is not even a different or special time for us. My mom, the last time we took her to Church, had no idea where we were, who Jesus was, or had any sort of relationship on a conscious level, to God. And it broke my heart. She has Alzheimer’s and my prayer for her is that her heart is right with God, even if her mind is failing her. For so many people we know, their minds cloud the purity of their hearts. And we cannot judge the quality of someone else’s Lent. Our culture has become so hedonistic, that the idea of giving something up is pretty foreign to people. So if they make any effort towards growth at all, it is time to celebrate for and with them. And always, keep our Christian brethren in prayer, holding one another up in these days of trials. And most especially during Lent.

When we fast it enhances our experiences. And when we end our fast and we begin to feast, it is the most incredible thing you will experience. I recall one year in particular. The boys teased me almost daily, “Is that tofu again?” We followed every dietary fasting requirement we were given. And trust me, in the Eastern Churches, fasting is serious business. And it is for each and every of the 40 days of Lent, not just Wednesday and Friday. So this particular year, we prepared for Holy Saturday. We helped clean the Church, we cooked meat dishes galore. Our priest said he would personally throw any vegetable he saw into the trash! Ha-Ha. The scents coming from the hall as we gathered in the Church were driving us all mad!! We use lots of incense in Church, and most especially on Holy Saturday at midnight. It is so much we have to open windows to breathe. We all love it, though, because our hair and clothes all smell so wonderfully “Churchy” afterwards! The scent of the angels! And this one year, one of the men snuck out early and bought up dozens and dozens of In and Out hamburgers. He had made arrangements with the local location and they had pre-made them for him. When he put those in the hall, we all knew exactly what was waiting for us. And trust me, it was the most amazing feast. Everyone was joyously sharing the Resurrection, with hugs and cracking of eggs, and toasting and eating and singing and dancing. Our son, who is leaving tomorrow and is now 21 years old, was a small child at the time. I think he was about 3 or 4. He was sleeping soundly next to our table, lying on a pile of blankets and jackets. We celebrated until after 3:00 am! Glorious feasting after a long, 40-days of fasting and prayers and almsgiving. And we had grown so much over each of those 40 days. Each day brought its trial and each of them added together, brought us to the magnificent feast of Pascha. Happy Lent, my friends!

“…If the world hates you…”

ON Pillars of LentI must be emotional or something, because from yesterday to today, I’m in a totally different frame of mind! Maybe it’s my age, or the fact that it is supposed to snow today and is all dark and cloudy outside. But it is just day #2 of the Fast for Great Lent, and for my Roman Catholic friends, it is Fat Tuesday, with tomorrow being Ash Wednesday.  So their Lent is beginning tomorrow.  But today, they can eat as they like, whereas those of us on the eastern side of the aisle are already deeply into Clean Week, with it being Clean Tuesday.  And that is where I have come to post on my blog…the “Fast.”

Wow, I really did not think that fasting would cause such a myriad of responses.  There have been angry posts, people knit-picking on whether soy is fast-approved or if tofu should be allowed, or if you can have beer but not wine…is fake meat (tofu products) really okay during the fast because you are getting the (almost) same enjoyment from a meat-like substance, so doesn’t that defeat the whole “fasting from meat” thingy?  One remark on a wall post was from a young man who once dated a “Catholic” and during Lent she wanted to give up sex – he said, “It was the longest month of my life. WTF?”  Wow.  Completely insane remarks floating around out there.  And all sorts of emotional roller-coaster responses, too.  But it was noticeable.  This Lent feels different, from almost all my other Lenten experiences.

Some people are going to try fasting for the first time, and some are even Protestant, and this is the milieus we want to invite them to join?  From my perspective, Lent is such a different time – for me; I am not pretending to comment or judge anyone else’s journey.  During Lent, I sort of “batten down the hatches” and subdue the wildness that can be life. I eat less and have a concern over what I do eat; I pray and read the Bible much more (I am following along in the “Theosis” magazine this Lent for readings and prayers for all the specified hours – awesome resource for me); and I am keeping a guard over my behavior – my words, my actions, my thoughts. Today I read a great article talking about how Lent is a special time each year to renew our relationship to God, or to perhaps discover it, for the reality that it is, for the first time.  And we are called to this project of discovery every year – every year.  God and His Church, in wisdom, gave us liturgical seasons and they help us to enter in to the worship of God more deeply. It happens to coincide with the physical seasons we experience around us, too.  And I think that is wonderful. Some dates, some days, are borrowed from pagan worship; yes, they are. Don’t be scandalized. It is one of the beautiful things about the Church.  The Apostles came to all the corners of the earth, preaching Christ to people as they were, where they were.  And because of that, we have a kaleidoscope of color, sound, and smell within the Church, reflective of all the many and varied cultures to which the Faith of Christ was extended.

gateLent is the same all over the world, in all cultures.  Dates may be off a little here and there; practices may vary from country to country.  But the basics are that we need to give up more of ourselves, for more of Him.  In our inner core of who we are (the nous in Orthodoxy) we allow Christ to nestle in and become a complete part of us, in a spiritual union with our God.  How well He fits in, and how comfortable He is with what we offer Him, is totally our doing.  He stands at the door and waits for us.  It is completely up to us, our free-will part of the journey of faith, to let Him fully reside in us, or to just allow Him brief visits now and then (as in attending Church on what my son calls “incense days” in the Latin Church – Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Easter…you know, the days they haul out the incense) or perhaps at a special event we want God’s blessings on – Marriages, Baptisms, and Burials.

Abbot NazariusBut truly, and most especially during Lent, we need to immerse ourselves in our faith. We are given this opportunity to pick ourselves up and start again, in a real way.  The world spins, our culture keeps going its own way – a way of hedonism, lack of compassion for our fellow man, greed and the “need to succeed,” and a very large lack of respect towards our being and that of others.  The Church led us to Lent through some amazing Scriptures read at Liturgy.  One of them was the story of the Last Judgement – the sheep and the goat story.  And one of most incredible icons is the icons of the Divine Ascent, or “Stairway to Heaven,” as the song says.  I love this icon.  Before I had discovered my Catholicism (and then my love of the Eastern churches) and its deep impact on my life, I recall a friend in college who had the singular, most unique poster in his bathroom that I had ever seen. It was a modern version of this self-same icon. I used to go into his bathroom and just sit there and stare at that poster. It struck me so deeply, as it was quite graphic. I felt bad for all those people falling into the hands of the demons and all that fire.  I liked the “golden staircase” and how those at the top were welcomed and embraced, and walked off into the clouds of heaven.  And it had no effect, whatsoever, on the choices I was making in my life; it did not change who I was, nor did it register with me that that particular poster was speaking to me, years before I was ready to hear.  It was only later in life when I saw the icon that I knew what it was.Ladder_of_Divine_AscentThere are many depictions of this famous icon, but the message is the same.  We are on a journey, all of us.  We are climbing our way to our eternity.  Each choice we make, each decision we make, every person we meet along the way, are all a part of our journey.  We are either taking a step towards God or we are sliding back down, away from Him.  This Lent is an opportunity to gain a rung or two in the right direction.  We can slough it off as something only Monks do, or only clergy are obliged to participate in, or we can choose to join in.  We can become a part of the collective work of the Church.  We can join our brothers and sisters, in the best way we are able, in this prayer to God.  Lent is a prayer.  We are all doing what we can, for our own salvation, in the light of God’s love. And during Lent, most particularly, the Church is telling us, “Less is more” where food is concerned, but prayer and a conscious effort towards God is even “more” than fasting from food.  We need to keep it in its proper perspective in our lives, especially during Lent.

St.Maximus the Confessor.foodThere is a great saying regarding the entire concept of all this complaining and knit-picking, and it is, “Keep an eye on your own plate.” We are all struggling. There is only one person at a time on that ladder up there!  We cannot approach heaven belittling the efforts of others as they make their way up the ladder.  We cannot hold anger and bitterness towards others if we are going to have a firm grasp on that upward rung.  It just doesn’t work.  All the snarkiness and negativity towards people of faith is, however,  something to be expected, and it was even foretold!

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. “You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.” (Matthew 10:21-22).

“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. “But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.” (John 15:18-21)

Our Lord knew the way would not be easy.  He knew the world would deride us for our efforts.  He also knew it would tear families and churches apart, when we try to truly live a life of faith.  But once again, it is up to us to stand firm and not waiver in our determination to see this through, each in his own way, remaining faithful to our relationship to God.  And it is up to me, to you, to each of us, to remain faithful in spite of comments, of family and friends who don’t get it.  We lead by example. We are called to be that stick in the river, that does not bend to the flow around it. I am working on not being mad or reactionary to comments; it is something God has thrown my way, for my growth.  And by sharing my way of dealing with it, I hope you who read this will gain strength to stay the course over these 40 days.

O Lord and Master of my life,
Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of discouragement,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.

 But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity,
of meekness,
of patience,
and of love.

Yea, O Lord and King,
grant that I may perceive
my own transgressions,
and judge not my brother,
for blessed art Thou
unto ages of ages.