Fr. Alexander Schmemann
It is obviously impossible for us to go to Church every day (during the Fast). And since we cannot keep the Lent liturgically (in all its fullness), the question arises: what is our participation in Lent, how can we spiritually profit by it? The Church calls us to deepen our religious conscience, to increase and strengthen the spiritual contents of our life, to follow her in her pilgrimage towards renewal and rededication to God.
The first universal precept is that of fasting. The Orthodox teaching concerning fasting is different from the Roman Catholic doctrine and it is essential to understand it. Roman Catholics identify fasting with a “good deed,” see in it a sacrifice which earns us a “merit.” “What shall I give up for Lent?” – this question is very typical of such an attitude toward fasting. Fasting thus is a formal obligation, an act of obedience to the Church, and its value comes precisely from obedience.
The Orthodox idea of fasting is first of all that of “an ascetical effort.” It is the effort to subject the physical, the fleshly man to the spiritual one, the “natural” to the “supernatural.” Limitations in food are “instrumental,” they are not ends in themselves. Fasting thus is but a means of reaching a spiritual goal and, therefore, an integral part of a wide spiritual effort. Fasting, in the Orthodox understanding, includes more than abstinence from certain types of food. It implies prayer, silence, an internal disposition of mind, an attempt to be charitable, kind, and – in one word – spiritual. “Brethren, while fasting bodily, let us also fast spiritually…”
And because of this, the Orthodox doctrine of fasting excludes the evaluation of fasting in terms of a “maximum” or “minimum.” (Keeping in mind the directives of the Church: i.e., no meat, dairy or egg products for 40 days), everyone must find “his” maximum, weigh “his” conscience and find in it “his pattern of fasting.” But this pattern must necessarily include the spiritual as well as the “bodily” elements. Whatever is our measure (however), our fasting must be a total effort of our total being.
We must always pray, but Lent is the time of an increase of prayer and also of its deepening. The simplest way is, first, to add the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian to our private morning and evening prayers. Then, it is good and profitable to set certain hours of the day for a short prayer: this can be done “internally” – at the office, in the car, everywhere. The important thing here is to remember constantly that we are in Lent, to be spiritually “referred” to its final goal: renewal, penitence, closer contact with God.
We cannot be in Church daily, but it is still possible for us to follow the Church’s progress in Lent by reading those lessons and books which the Church reads in her worship. A chapter of the Book of Genesis, some passages from Proverbs and Isaiah do not take much time, and yet they help us in understanding the spirit of Lent and its various dimensions. It is also good to read a few Psalms – in connection with prayer or separately. Nowhere else (as in the Psalms) can we find such concentration of true repentance, of thirst for communion with God, of desire to permeate the whole of life with religion. Finally, a religious book: lives of the Saints, history of the Church, Orthodox spirituality, etc. is a must while we are in Lent. It takes us from our daily life to a higher level of interests, it feeds us with ideas and facts which are usually absent from our “practical” and “efficient” world.
CHANGE OF LIFE:
And last, but not least: there must be an effort and a decision to slow down our life, to put in as much quiet, silence, contemplation and meditation, as possible. Radio, TV, internet, social gatherings – all these things, however excellent and profitable in themselves, must be cut down to a real minimum. Not because they are bad, but because we have something more important to do, and it is impossible to do it without a change of life, without some degree of concentration and discipline. Lent is the time when we re-evaluate our life in the light of the Faith, and this requires a very real effort and discipline. Christ says that a narrow path leads to the Kingdom of God and we must make our life as narrow as possible (during the Fast).
At first the natural and selfish man in us revolts against these limitations. He wants his usual “easy life” with all its pleasures and relaxations. But once we have tasted of such spiritual effort, once we have made by it one step towards God, the reward is great! We discover a joy that cannot be compared to any other joy. We discover the reality of the spiritual world in us. We begin to understand what St. Paul meant by “the joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” God Himself enters our soul: and it is this wonderful coming that constitutes the ultimate end of Lent: “If a man loves Me, he will keep My words: and my Father will love him and We will come unto him and make Our abode with him” (John 14:23).