The first week of Great Lent is a time especially for prayer and strict abstinence. In the first four days—from Monday to Thursday—in practically every church the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete will be read.
The majority of today’s active Christians live in cities. Large cities leave their marks on our spiritual lives. City residents are immersed in a multitude of daily cares: they work, they study, they’re always hurrying somewhere… Some, due to various circumstances do not find the strength and possibility to participate in all the Great Lenten services. Pravoslavie.ru asked several pastors to give a few words about what is the main thing, in their view, that should fill a Christian’s life in the days of Great Lent, to offer something from personal experience, to help those Christians engulfed by cares to determine their spiritual program—the maximum and minimum—during this time.
Not all believers, however many they may be, can fast exactly the same—because of their differences in age, health, lifestyle, and degree of participation in Church life. And the eras, one replacing another, impose their characteristic stamp upon the spiritual life, transforming one and the same spiritual labor not into a repetition of what was before, but into something completely unique and special.
Wherein lies the modern particularities of our Lenten podvig?
The first thing that jumps out at you is the time that the usual person spends on travel today. To get to work, and after work to get to church, and then to return home, you can’t just cross the street or go a few hundred feet, but you have to go on a long and familiar journey. It’s a grueling routine with city transportation, it’s a daily drain on strength and money. In the best case, it’s an hour to work, an hour from work to church, and an hour from the service home. Altogether, its three hours of this difficult and specific “work,” draining your remaining physical and mental strength.
Meanwhile, the Church guidelines don’t take such traveling into account. They’re based on a monastery, where from your cell to the place of your obedience is no distance at all, and from the place of your obedience to the church is a five-minute walk. From here, there’s the possibility to have several hours to gather strength for the long prayer labor in church. Rural life also assumes the proximity of house, church, and place of work. Here’s the field, here’s home, and now the sound of a nearby bell, calling to church. Also, the cenobitic life of a monastery assumes that, returning from the service, you will find food ready in the trapeza, although the most meager due to Lent, but ready all the same. But the secular pilgrim (most often a woman) has to, having arrived home, get to the stove and feed the household. As you can see, her podvig doubles, and even triples.
We cannot radically change the conditions of life, but we can change our attitude towards them. Here sensitivity and compassion are needed from spiritual fathers for “the little parishioner” who is fighting for his life, is exhausted from his messy life, and is trying to serve God. He doesn’t read everything, doesn’t make it through everything, doesn’t hear everything. And of what he does hear and read, he doesn’t understand everything. We need patience and condescension. Increased demands and the morose mien of an expert instructing the ignorant are unacceptable. We must understand that the enemy of morning prayer is the rush, and of evening prayer—fatigue. So, perhaps you have to learn the prayers and psalms by heart to pray from memory, leaning against the window in the metro car. We mustn’t rebuke someone for this kind of prayer, but rather, we should encourage and comfort him.
One more necessary comment about the eras with their peculiarities—it’s the shift of accent from food to information. The man of previous eras was healthier and hardier than our contemporaries. An empty stomach was necessary for him for the decrease of his biological activity. It was necessary to truly weaken, in order to restrain his wild passions. But modern man is, more often than not, sickly and utterly weak. He doesn’t suffer from an excess of physical strength, and he’s not moving mountains. He, on the contrary, wakes up tired and barely moves his feet throughout the day. On the other hand, he is overfed, stuffed with information pouring into his eyes and ears like tropical rain, which has made many like patients of a psychiatric clinic, who just sleep at home for some reason.
To turn off the television and not turn it on at least for the first week, the week of the Cross, and Holy Week would be much more useful than to check food labels: whether there’s dried milk, or something else non-fasting there. Music, gossip and idle chatter, TV shows, “hanging out” on your favorite sites—these things are more dangerous than a glass of milk, and require a stricter, or even more merciless attitude towards yourself.
Of course, I’m not saying you should go on an “information fast” and continue to eat whatever you want. Bodily restraint, as the fathers have said, is truly “the mother of all good things.” You have to dry out the belly and give alms, you have to practice reading the Holy Scriptures and kneeling. But we have to understand the peculiarities of the world in which we live, and not try, as St. Philaret of Moscow said, to turn our city into the Thebaid, and the nineteenth century into the fifth. And St. Philaret’s contemporary, no less miraculous in life and in thought, St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov), would repeat as a commandment the words: “Understand the times.”
An unsober, reason-less attitude towards life breeds mistakes with every step and discredits the very possibility of leading a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty (1 Tim. 2:2).
Thus, we mustn’t use the same measuring stick with everyone, but work it out with each person as an “isolated case.” It’s impossible to take into account the real commotion of cities, with their distances, and traveling, and fatigue. And we must remember that fasting and prayer are the mental work of the inner man, and that means, the enemy of this labor is an excess of information to an even greater degree than an excess of calories.
The rest is a matter of experience, for only the walking traveller masters the road, and not the one studying the map.
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What should be central for us during Lent? The answer, from experience—both that of the Church and personal—should be in “relative” terms, not in absolutes. Don’t demand from someone: Eat this, read those prayers, go to church at this time, but offer the following:
—Determine the order of eating for the whole family (if you have one), both children and adults, for the entire time of Lent (for example—sweets only on Saturdays and Sundays, etc.) and ask a priest to bless the observance of this order;
—Determine a schedule for watching television (from limitation to completely turning it off);
—Increase the length of your personal (family) prayers;
—Appoint a time for personal or family reading of Orthodox literature which is appropriate for all;
—Appoint a time for going to church during the week, prepare for Communion at the Great Lenten services (find the texts of the Great Canon, Compline, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, the services of Holy Week);
—Help one another (tactfully, unobtrusively) more attentively and seriously prepare for Confession, confess several times during Lent and commune of the Holy Mysteries when possible;
—Also, with the help of others, or independently, set a goal and solve any specific moral problems (to get rid of this or that habit, smoking, for example, to visit someone who needs your help, make a tangible donation to some work, etc.).
What not to do: give a vow “for Lent” to abstain from some sin or bad habit. If it’s a sin, then you need to deliver yourself from it forever. Thus, for example, if you have “problems” with alcohol and you make a vow not to drink during Lent, that means you have seven weeks to anticipate a drink, and you’ll meet holy Pascha like a pig.
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The most important thing for Christians during Lent is to be very attentive during these days. It’s a period of intensive work on your inner state. Temperance in food, and prayer are only the conditions under which our goal—the cleansing of the soul—is attained. If you have the chance, you should go to church to pray. It’s especially good to go to the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which greatly affects the heart and mind with deeply repentant thoughts. If you don’t have the chance, don’t despair.
It’s good to avoid external manifestations of your asceticism, don’t have a downcast face during Lent, etc. Be friendly and calm. At the same time, try to be meek, so nothing negative comes from you. One of the signs of an incorrect fast is irritability, anger. It often appears, especially when there is a fight going on between the old and new man. Therefore, attention (sobriety) is the core around which the whole spiritual life of a man is built. We must closely observe ourselves during the Fast: what we say, what we listen to, where we look, what our heart thinks about. That’s the main thing. We must remember that Great Lent is not just some segment of our path in life, but a reflection of our whole life—as the holy fathers teach.
While working on yourself you have to work out what most torments your conscience, what prevents you from living, what you want to get rid of, and try to make the maximum effort to achieve this through fasting, repentance, and prayer.
On the other hand, of course, by its length, Lent reminds of a kind of tithe of the year, which we give to God, that is, it is a sacrifice to God. We have to sacrifice. Suppose a man has a seemingly innocent attachment: to crack open seeds. They’re a totally Lenten food, but it would be good to try to learn moderation in the small things; for, in the words of the apostle Paul, “nothing should possess me” (cf. 1 Cor. 6:12). Or, for example, try to abstain from sweet things during Lent. It goes without saying that it’s necessary to abstain from television, unnecessary communication, telephone conversations, talking on internet forums, and other activities that contribute to dispersion.
And people are quite capable of preserving sobriety in a city. In the first volume of the works of St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) there is even a chapter entitled, “The rule of one who is attentive to himself, living amidst the world”—about how to be saved in a large city, with what thoughts to rise in the morning, with what thoughts to lie down in the evening, and how to comport yourself during the day. A Christian is not one who is isolated. If he’s a monk, then it’s a different thing, but we live in the world. Orthodox laity should differ from others by their spiritual life. We pray: “Lord, hallowed be Thy name.” His name is hallowed not just there, in Heaven, but in us, so that people, looking at us, would glorify our Heavenly Father and would want to live as the Church teaches. This is what it means to love God. We don’t all have to live the same, but everyone to the measure of his faith, in accordance with the conditions of his life.
As for abstinence from food, everything is individual: Fast as you are able, but urge yourself towards restraint. For one it will be enough to abstain from meat, another will fast more strictly, and a third should generally refrain from all eating. It’s a simple principle: All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient (1 Cor. 6:12).
Pride has two extremes: All or nothing. Pride cannot walk a middle path. Everything should be to a degree that our body doesn’t interfere with our mind praying. This is the main principle.
Let’s return to our first thought—to attention.
You don’t need to take any asceticism beyond your strength upon yourself in this first week. The fast is relaxed for the sick, students, and the pregnant. Excessive bodily fatigue from fasting is just as harmful as overeating. How can you pray if you’re already falling, your legs are giving way from exhaustion during prayer? The experience of Church history is that the ancient ascetics already realized, as it turns out, that fasting is easier than battling with the thoughts, and it’s easier to sleep on the earth than to forgive. Already from those times the attitude towards asceticism, towards work on yourself has changed.
If a woman sits at home with the children and cannot go to church for the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, then she can read the canon at home (there are enough books now), even at night, as our pious grandmothers did.
And the most important thing during Lent is not to withdraw into yourself, but to try to correct yourself. You shouldn’t engage in self-chastisement: We’re far from perfect, we can examine what within ourselves “drives us crazy,” and therefore what, of what we saw in ourselves, we need to more quickly free ourselves from through confession. Otherwise, despair and despondency will overwhelm you, if you only consider your sins. Outwardly, we should be friendly and welcoming, and remember that we are children of our Heavenly Father.
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When I was studying in seminary, there was a popular song by Hieromonk Roman (Matyushin) in our dorm. Now I remember some lines from one of his songs: “Fasting with prayer warms the soul / The ringing of a bell over the earth…”
During the first week of Lent and Holy Week, classes stop in the seminary so all the students could pray every day, morning and evening at the Lenten services and immerse themselves in the spiritual life. I can’t say it was very easy: Lenten services are very long, and we weren’t released from our work obediences during the first week, but my memories of that time remain the brightest. After all, even a parish priest doesn’t usually serve morning and evening every day the whole first week.
Of course, not every layman has such a unique possibility of spending the fullness of this grace-filled time in prayer: Everyone has work, chores, pressing matters, and studies. But every Orthodox Christian needs to slow down the crazy pace of his daily life and free up some time for the soul.
For “fasting and prayer warms the soul,” which is chilly and poor in this modern, cold world, sad and alone in it. And we are warmed in church during the services, as if being straightened out. Fasting is also called “the spring of the soul,” and it’s no accident that the most important fast is always in the spring. Nature is freed from snow and cold, and is blossoming, and our soul should flower by fasting. Thus, Lent is not a sad time, but joyful, of course, if we fast properly and are properly adjusted to fasting. The great teacher of fasting St. Ephraim the Syrian says: “The glutton calls Lent a time of weeping, but the temperate does not look gloomy in Lent.” What joy and benefit can be received listening to the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete in church, praying during the evening services!
It really helped me to understand the thought of this great work to have a book with the text and commentary. I think such booklets are easily found in Church stores. You can take it with you to the service. The Great Canon is a storehouse of spiritual wisdom, and just attentively reading it, you can repeat and recall the whole Bible.
The Great Canon is read in most churches, usually at 6:00 PM, so people can make it to church after work. But there are situations where there is no chance to be in church all evening. For example, work schedules might not allow it, or caring for young infants. In that case it’s very useful and good to read the canon at home. When my children were very young, my wife didn’t always manage to go to the canon and she would read it with the kids at home.
What’s the proper way to spend Lent? It’s not limited to just bodily fasting. It’s a completely empty thing to not eat sausage and hot dogs, but meanwhile to not limit yourself with your usual comforts (TV, computer, magazines, newspapers, and the like). It turns out to be hypocritical—the outer form without content. Not only the body, but the soul must also fast. I don’t have a television now, but before, when I had one, I stopped watching it during the Fast and was just amazed at how much free time was released. For example, during Lent I usually manage to read more books than the whole rest of the year, and to redo a whole heap of things.
We should especially attentively approach the first week. It, like a tuning fork, gives the tone to the whole of Lent. The first week, by its strictness, helps us get into the rhythm of the Fast and make a correct start. Thus, starting a long swim or run, you have to take the right breath. Then it won’t be hard to go the whole distance.
May the Lord grant that the coming Fast would be beneficial for us, help us look into the depths of ourselves, to become better, and to cope with our sins. Let us fast “a pleasing fast!”