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I know its kind of cliché, but right now comparing my participation in Great Lent with the cleaning of my house is the most relatable analogy I can muster. And I need me an analogy, because that’s how I roll. See, I can’t just dive into Lent all willy nilly without examining first my expectations and intentions. It’s too tempting to go hog wild (er...I mean, tofu wild?) stocking my pantry with dried beans, looking up yummy vegan recipes and making intricate lenten meal plans – to make that part of it an end in itself. But I cheat myself that way of spiritual treasures accessible only through a wholistic approach to fasting that nourishes my body, mind and spirit equally, seamlessly. I’m desperate to avoid this year getting distracted by, and therefore lost in, the peripherals.
Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works, wrote Saint John Chrysostom. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice. Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful... Let the ear fast... by not listening to evil talk and gossip... Let the mouth fast from the foul words and unjust criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?
So back to my messy house, to the dishes that need to be scrubbed, the pile of school papers covering our buffet table, the cluttered corners upstairs and downstairs whining for my attention. When every room I enter has become disheveled due to busyness and neglect, my default defense tactic is avoidance. I’m an expert at inventing ways to cunningly address the issue of the mess without actually ever picking up a broom, mop or dust rag. You know what I need? I’ll easily convince myself, Another trip to Target, for a wall calendar, white board, new laundry basket, etc. I can waste hours on-line searching up organizational tips or housework schedules. It’s embarrassingly remarkable really, how, despite talking about the mess, obsessing over the mess, buying stuff to tame the mess, at the end of the day my house remains no cleaner than before. Unless I bite the bullet, roll up my sleeves and surrender to the terribly untitillating effort required to transform that which is hectic into an oasis of calmness and simplicity, peace will elude me.
Now cleaning my house won’t make anyone love me more – my family hasn’t presented me with an ultimatum or anything stating, Tidy-up or we’re out of here! I’m so thankful to be loved unconditionally by my kids and husband. On my pleasant days, crabby days, lazy days, they are forgiving and resilient. It will, however, affect the quality of my day-to-day life. Waking up to a home that’s been tended to feels tranquil and empowering. I’m more generous, hospitable, dependable, patient optimistic when I’m a good and faithful steward of our material blessings. Any other incentive besides tapping in to that peace of mind, heart and spirit, such as the procuring of praise and respect, fail to motivate me long term or shield me from resentment (“I just vacuumed that rug yesterday!” “They need to eat again?!”). Plain old hard and selfless work is the unflashy narrow path to joy and contentment.
Yes, it’s my soul I’m alluding to here, my disheveled soul, which I’m too distracted on my own to recognize is in need of some serious TLC so the Church, out of Love, points its cluttered state out to me. And she knows I’m too weak to care for it all by my lonesome, so here I am, hand-in-hand with an entire community of Orthodox Christians from all around the world at the starting line of a Church assigned season of quiet prayer, reflection and preparation. We simplify our diets, which aids in controlling our impulsivities. Mindless gorging, speaking, reacting or spending is terribly addictive and counterproductive, not to mention spiritually deafening. We attend Church services, beautiful services, lengthy and frequent services so imperative for keeping us focused on the aim at hand, and accessing the Christ hungry depths of our spirits too often smothered by earthly diversions. We pray more. We try not to escape the intensity of silence, which leads to self-reflection, with the noise of television or radio. We read about saints. We attempt to give and love more in the name of Christ who is Love and Mercy. We receive the Holy Eucharist and repent of our sins at Confession.
These Lenten tools of the Church are many and miraculous. They are highly effective, when utilized with humility and in conjunction with one another, at chipping away the calcified self-centeredness fueling our lusts and anxieties. There’s nothing easy about them, however, or comfortable or entertaining. And there are no short cuts. Any other incentive to work at fasting, besides tapping into the heavenly peace of mind, heart and spirit found in communion with Christ, such as the procuring of praise and respect, fail to motivate me long term or shield me from resentment (“I’m sick to death of hummus!” ), despair (“I screwed up again!”) or judgment (“Why weren’t they at Presanctified Liturgy last night?”).
Lent is not a pass/fail endeavor – it’s not a test, but rather a mystical means of healing and enlightenment I’d be very, very foolish not to take advantage of. The work of fasting won’t make God love me more - I’m very thankful to already, no matter what I do or don’t do, be loved by Him unconditionally. On my prayerful days, my forgetful days, my relapse days, my exhausted days, He is forgiving and full of grace. It will however affect the quality and fruitfulness of my day-to-day life here on earth. Waking up to a soul that’s been tended to feels tranquil and meaningful. I’m more generous, hospitable, courageous, patient, when I’m a good and faithful steward of my spiritual blessings.
Come, my fellow laborers, let us pace ourselves together, and with joy, throughout these forty days of work. Let us prune, water and feed our souls that Love may bloom , remaining confident, always secure in the promise that on the other side of our Lenten efforts lies the victorious Resurrection of all Life, all Purpose and all Hope!