How can we keep Great Lent? by Fr. Alexander Schmemann

It is obviously impossible for us to go to Church every day. And since we cannot keep the Lent liturgically, 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.

1. Fasting

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 subdue 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 wider 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 tasting 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.” Every one must find his maximum, weigh his con­science and find in it his “pattern of fasting.” But the pattern must necessarily include the spiritual as well as the “bodily” elements. The Typicon and the canons of the Church give the description of an ideal fast: no dairy products, total absti­nence on certain days. “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (Matt. 19:12). But, whatever is our measure — our fasting must be a total effort of our total being…

According to the rules of the Church the fast cannot be brok­en for the entire Lenten period of forty days: Saturdays and Sundays are no exception.

2. Prayer

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. Ephrem 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.

3. Spirtual Reading

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 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 ideas and facts which are usually absent from our “practical” and “efficient” world.

4. 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, meditation. Radio, TV, newspapers, 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 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 our 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. 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, 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 Len: “If a man love me, he will keep mu words: and my father will love him and we will come unto him and make our abode with him.” (Jn. 14, 23).

Let us make this Lent a real Lent!