I always forget what binge watching, rich food, and alcohol right before bed do to me. I routinely ignore all those tips about how to get a good night’s sleep–no screens, no food, no caffeine, no alcohol–and then wonder why I can’t sleep all night.
Then, right on schedule, the church calendar reminds me that I was created for a higher purpose than watching too much and eating too much and drinking too much. My purpose is to be in communion with God and with my fellowmen and women, yet her I am, out of whack, off-kilter, unbalanced.
I need restoration in my relationship with God and with my fellowmen and women. How exactly is this accomplished? Self-restraint, prayer, and giving.
Regarding self-restraint, the rules are clear. Orthodox folks are vegans for about half the year. Between the four fasting periods and the Wednesday and Friday cycle, we eat lots of beans and rice. Or pasta and sauce. Since we live in an era of plenty, this is not difficult.
What IS difficult is keeping the fast. Not because of food availability (you can get veggie burgers anywhere), but because of our tendency to rationalize our cravings: we often opt out of fasting, which is one of the greatest tools for spiritual growth.
Saying no to ourselves and our desires helps us say yes to God and to good things. Saying no to ourselves builds our souls and aligns them with God. Saying no to ourselves restores us to creation and to each other.
The other thing, prayer, is a gift from the church. It’s so hard to give up food and activities without putting something in its place. Voila! Church!
The first week of Lent is filled with the Canon of St. Andrew. The following five weeks, depending on the practice, has either two (OCA practice) or three (byzantine practice) or more church services to attend–Great Compline, Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, and the Akathist. The prayer rule at home changes with prostrations and additional prayers. For some of us, Lent reminds us again that personal prayer is as important as corporate prayer, so we renew our prayer rule at home.
This additional prayer restores our relationship with God and with each other. It humbles us. It reminds us who we are. It silences us.
Finally, giving helps us to see outside of ourselves. In addition to our gifts to the church, the money we would have spent on meat, milk, eggs, and cheese is given to the poor. Some people say they spend more on lenten food than they do on non-lenten food; however, if you are eating simply, you will notice a big difference in your grocery bill. Instead of finding meat and dairy substitutes, eat in-season vegetables and grains. It won’t kill you, I promise.
Like the additional fasting and prayer, giving restores us to God and to each other. We see the person who is hungry not as a person who doesn’t work hard enough or a person who needs to prove they deserve food or a taker rather than a maker; rather, we see the person as a fellow traveler on the road of life who needs our help. We see the other person as an icon of God because that is what she is.
Great Lent only works if I work it. I see no change in my life if I fast but don’t pray, or if I give but don’t fast, or if I pray but don’t give. All these things are for our growth and for our change. They are for our restoration, to God and to each other.