“…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.

“…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.
Amen.