Monday, March 05, 2012
Lent and Life
This coming Lazarus Saturday I will celebrate my 14th year being "Orthodox".
Fifteen years ago I prepared to enter the Orthodox Church by fasting "strictly". No meat, dairy, fish, wine or oil for over 40 days. I was on a "Mission from God".
A group of us sat in a living room with an Orthodox priest who was asking us about what we had studied and what we were doing as former Episcopalians that was preparing us to become Orthodox. Of course among our group we all had discussed our fasting and prayer rules with each other. Someone said to the priest, "Some of us are abstaining from meat, dairy, fish, wine and oil." The priest commented, "Wow... that is strict!"
I still remember ever so slightly smiling when he said that (even though I had no clue WHY he said that back then). Even then I had a clue that I smiled because of pride and that "someone who would know" affirmed my strictness and spiritual effort. My first Lent was a failure right out of the gate.
Over the past fourteen years I've kept Lent pretty strictly, somewhat strictly, and on and off pretty poorly. I remember one year I broke out with huge red, itchy blotches all over my body all during Lent that I think might have been a seafood allergy, but I kept the fast anyway. Eating jumbo shrimp and crab for Jesus for 50+ itchy days is a tough spiritual discipline. But over the years there have been the secret Burger King and Taco Bell lunches when I worked alone and the blatant "tofu-be-damned" meat-fests even on a Friday.
Of course one of the primary lessons of Lent is that you fail, if not in food then in relationships, attitude, and spirit which are actually the REAL issues, not food. Intellectually I knew that Lent is supposed to be humbling and if you finished with a sense of accomplishment you did it wrong. But there is always the temptation to pride for "doing it right"... at least the food part of it.
The longer I'm Orthodox it seems the "pretty poorly" number of meals and days have grown. The longer I was Orthodox the more elegant my rationalizations became (for instance, I know at the monasteries monks who work manual labor aren't required to keep the fasts strictly... I did manual labor, therefore....). But I didn't have to read "The Ladder of Divine Ascent" to recognize they were just rationalizations for the weakness of my flesh. Over the years I've also recognized I feel less guilt for not keeping the fasts strictly.
I think "lack of guilt" about food may be a sign I am finally becoming a real "Orthodox Christian", the kind of normal Orthodox Christian Fr. Michael was comparing me to fourteen years ago who freely and guiltlessly "break the fasts". I've known that fasting is not ultimately about rules about food but about being a Christian. But I've often found I was more concerned about what other people might think about me eating a Big Mac than being an ass during Lent. The past couple years I've swung the other way (of course probably off balance again). I've slowly become more concerned about being an "orthodox CHRISTIAN" than an "ORTHODOX Christian". Some day I may get both in the same font.
So with all of this personal spiritual restructuring going on, this year's Lent is a total ummmm...., shall I say, fastulation dysfunction.
It's not just about struggling with fasting particularly. I've realized it is about coming to terms with fourteen years of "goofodoxy" I've personally participated in, endured, wrestled with and been beaten down by. For the last few months I've been taking a break from a lot of "hyper-involvement" in things "Church", my ego and pride about things spiritual, from talking about spiritual stuff and doing spiritual things in public venues, and fasting is one of them.
So this Lent my shiny "new toy" of fasting which I've played with less and less has finally been put on the top shelf of the closet in a plain cardboard box. At 14 years old I'm finally an adolescent putting away my childhood toys and trying to figure out how to be a grown up. It is hard to give up childhood fantasies and illusions and pretend games. Even if the "toys" were Daddy's real tools, I wasn't using them like Daddy did. He fixed cars with them while I banged on the board on the driveway floor with them.
But I haven't thrown all my toys away. Spiritual disciplines still hold a nostalgic pull and call to me to take them out of the box and play with them again. I know that some day I will, but as an adult with a different understanding of their meaning and value. It doesn't mean I didn't have fun with them as a child, nor that their meaning and presence in my life were pointless or meaningless. It just means I was a child once. As I grow up I will return to the same toys some day with a different perspective, a different attitude.
And then, like all toys we kept from our childhood and rediscover as adults, I know some day I'll find a new joy, a new appreciation for their meaning and will have a great love and awe for their former place and handle them with more care. I don't know when that will be right now.
So yes, this Lent, as the joke goes, I'm fasting from Lent. Unless I don't. I still might keep it, I don't know, probably more likely in front of certain other Orthodox people than when alone. I haven't decided if that is hypocrisy or discernment. Either way, I'm not making myself or God any promises about food for now. I'll try to keep the promise I made years ago to be like Christ, and I'll fail at that too for sure. I can only pray that I will know when I need to repent.
It's tough growing up.