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. 


Kirk said...

Right there with you, s-p.

Like you, I am taking my lack of enthusiasm as a sign that I have become more than less Orthodox. [shrug]

Larry Anderson said...

True story:

After my very first Forgiveness Vespers as a catechumen, the priest turned to everyone and said, "There are some Orthodox priests who would crucify me for this, but I've been thinking about In-N-Out Burger all day long, and if I don't have a Double-Double it's going to drive me crazy all through Lent. So I'm inviting you all to join me, and I'm buying."

At the time, I was kind of shocked. Now, I'd race him down there.

P.S. Good to see you posting. I've missed you on Facebook.

David Dickens said...

Steve, you have had to struggle for years with the unfortunate curse of being useful. I pray that God decides to bless you someday with uselessness, it appears He is considering it.

There is nothing so holy as a useless thing, except perhaps Green Spot

The Papists sure know their whiskey. I think I'll go and engage in some ecumenism.

Ingemar said...

Lent is a great time to make wine or mead.

Why? When you first make it you can't drink it (obviously) but regularly (say, every two Sundays) you have to transfer it to a new container to separate out the solids and you get to taste how it's developing.

By the time Easter rolls along, the ferment should be completely done and ready to drink!*

*Actually, if you you let the must clear after several months and bottle, the wine tastes best a year after bottling.

matushka constantina said...

I'm not sure I understood you correctly. That is, I understood you to say that you are not really planning on fasting this Lent.

I thought Lent was about relying on God to help us do things we find difficult, not starting out by saying we're not going to try. I thought it was okay to fall, but not okay to stay down.

But I may have misunderstood you.

Anam Cara said...

This year we have taken in a family (with children who don't speak English) from a third world country - too much to explain here. I learned on Ash Wednesday that they would be coming to us. I went to my spiritual advisor on Friday and told him that I might as well confess right then, I would have a hard time keeping the fast this year. I knew I was doomed.

But, oh, I am learning so much more caring for these children about my sins (impatience, lack of mercy, etc) than I ever would have learned from fasting from certain foods!

Anonymous said...

"Lent is supposed to be humbling and if you finished with a sense of accomplishment you did it wrong."


I always do what little I can, knowing that if I try to go whole hog and obeying the letter of the law I will drive myself nuts and the pushback will send me too far in the other direction. But my weakness that inevitably leads me to a bowl of ice cream, a few drams of whisky, or daydreams of attractive ladies who aren't my wife reminds me how much help I need. Forget 40 days, I didn't even make it out of the first week of lent without succumbing to a number of temptations. But the point (I think) is that I realize how much I need God's help and how weak and poor in spirit I am.

And last night I dreamed I ate a chicken dinner with my priest. I'm not sure what that means, but it is what it is.

elizabeth said...

my sense is that between the new job, not wanting to let go of the old job and all the time you spent before doing Ortho-stuff is leading to a severe burnout on more than one level.

I think in time you can pull out of this but it will take time and deliberation on what to do to regain stamina.

Life is hard; we need to be kind and not judge; this know.

Wishing you all goodness and restoration.

Matushka Anna said...

You sound like you need some hugs.


And to lighten things up:

“He that but looketh on a plate of ham and eggs to lust after it hath already committed breakfast with it in his heart."
--C. S. Lewis

j w said...

wow way to use your influence for the dark side.... good job screwing even more people up...

Benjamin said...

Our priest says every Lent that if you are unable/unwilling to Fast, the Church will be fasting for you. He scolds us for not taking St. Chrysostom's Paschal Homily seriously. All are welcome. If you are picky about who checked what boxes and kept what rules, well, then you can go to hell.

We are also told that if our fasting becomes awkward or a burden for any of our contemporaries/friends/family, according to the the teaching of Jesus "don't let them know you're fasting" and Paul's admonition "don't scandalize folks", you are simply not allowed to fast in those circumstances.

All this to say that some nuance is appreciated. One can very easily make fasting an idol, if for no other reason than the fact that it feels like you're "really doing something" in your Christian life. Fasting, I fear, is often a distraction from our massive spiritual boredom and stagnation.

We Orthodox often use lent for emotional highs in the same way we accuse evangelicals of using their sappy god-awful songs and worship practices for emotional highs. "I want a devout and strict lent so that I can get all teary-eyed and euphoric come Pascha evening". God keep us from our own pious desires!

David T said...

Fastulation Dysfunction--love it. As soon as the pharma companies catch on, though, we'll be subjected to commercials featuring penitents sitting side by side in adjacent baptismal fonts, holding hands.

Dn. David said...

It's interesting how the pendulum swings. This Holy Saturday will be my 11th year.

Seminary is always an interesting place for case studies; we've got the guys who read labels, and the guys who want the Church to do away with fasting altogether, and they want it yesterday. Pharisaism is a two-sided coin. There's also the majority somewhere in between.

Yeah, there's a point in which you care less when (not if) you break the fast. I guess for me, maintaining some level of fasting, if nothing else, serves as a foil for when my conduct makes the oatmeal and rice pilaf absurd. It's a little harder for me to rest in indifference to sin when the image of chastity and temperance is still in front of me at the dinner table.

Jason said...

Great stuff, Steve. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

matushka constantina: I can't speak for s-p, but I kinda think that if he were to blog about "getting up again" and fasting "better," in other words making this post yet another story about spiritual struggle in which the writer valiantly strives to overcome his weaknesses and press on and meet the fasting-rule goals and yadda yadda . . . well, don't you see how . . . oh, never mind.

Anonymous said...

Matushka Constantina, again: I'm sorry. My crankiness got the better of me and I let it show. Ignore my comment.

j w said...

See I don't have a problem with people not wanting to fast or not fasting at all... The problem with this post is that people actually look up to SP as if he is an authority figure in their lives... So when he puts it out in public that he had said 'go to hell' with fasting (at least this Lenten year) then other people see that and say "well then why am I fasting"...

Why would the Church do away with fasting, its already not a requirement it is a goal, a guide, and hope...

Sure I am already sick and tired of beans, rice, pasta; but I am going to do my best to keep with the fast. And yeah I will/may/just might fail at some point and then I will get back up and get back into the mess of fasting...

s-p said...

JW, I actually did think about that. I decided to post anyway and perhaps be a "role model" for people at a different place in their struggle with the Orthodox life. It's not about being tired of beans and rice or even fasting as a valid spiritual discipline. If that point was not clear I take responsibility for being a bad writer/poor communicator. God forbid anyone take my blog as "spiritual direction", it is only my struggles with life as a Christian. As they say in the fine print, "Your mileage may vary". But, thank you for the reality check.

Benjamin said...

You don't have to worry, I've never taken you for a spiritual authority. haha.

Just a man trying to be honest. A rarer thing indeed.

Cha said...

"We Orthodox often use lent for emotional highs in the same way we accuse evangelicals of using their sappy god-awful songs and worship practices for emotional highs. "I want a devout and strict lent so that I can get all teary-eyed and euphoric come Pascha evening". God keep us from our own pious desires! "

You have hit the nail on the head, Ben.

Anonymous said...

1. I also applaud Benjamin's nailing of our desire to shape our Lenten narratives as emotionalist drama. We just never stop distancing ourselves from reality by adopting this observer status, writing our own fictions. And how utterly predictable, sappy, and boring these fictions can be. Bad TV screenplays, the lot of them.

2. JW: I think if "people actually look up to SP as if he is an authority figure in their lives," then they are in urgent need of getting straightened out on that account, so if this post troubles them, good; time for a slap upside their trusting heads to readjust their priorities. I say that as a general rule about looking to ANY blogger about religion with that degree of personal trust, and with the understanding that s-p would be a far better guide than most people who yak online about religion and I really like almost everything he says. Making an internet stranger your guru is likely to result in more damage than whatever could be done by s-p being real about how his experience of goofodoxy has just been Stinking Out Loud for years. If this post really bothers you in this way, I think my response is: be careful out there, and check back with us in 5 or 10 years.

j w said...

SP, forgive me for speaking out of place.

David Dickens said...

j-w, you may have spoken out of place, but in doing so an important point was reinforced. I think, in the end, this is helpful.

The Internet is not the place for spiritual advice. It is not a bad place (if you are careful about your sources) for educating yourself about the Great Councils, or the various heresies, or what the filioque is going on in the world.

The Internet is a fairly good place to find testimony as well. Some like Father Stephen steep his testimony in his understanding of Orthodoxy, s-p gives his gripes about goofodoxy, some folks talk about what it's like to start a mission, or homeschooling.

Heck, I write poetry.

But if you are listening to Fr Stephen (to pick on him) over your own Bishop you are in for a world of hurt. If you think "Our Life in Christ" is a great catechism-while-you-commute and you don't need the one your priest wants before you get baptized, then this goes double.

I've got the same problem with "popular" Orthodox press books. My wife picked up a book by a well known author recently hoping to "better understand and appreciate Lent" and frankly, the book is a disaster. It was quite discouraging to her (and frankly, after I read a bit of it, I admit, I don't see what's so admirable about it).

Spiritual advice from anyone but an attached, responsible (I mean, someone who has a responsibility to you personally for your spiritual welfare) adult is just horrible juju. If anyone wants to admire someone, they should pick up a copy of the Prologue and read about the lives of the saints.

For your sake and theirs, never admire anyone until after they are dead...and don't admire me, even then.

B. Joanna said...

Steve is just a man, like any other man, trying to find his way on the journey. Just as we are all just people, like any other person, just trying to find our way on the journey. All any blog can give is a snapshot into that person's daily struggles and thoughts.

s-p said...

JW, no offense taken. I was serious about thanks for the reality check. I can honestly say after 40 years of teaching the greatest judgment I experience (next to God's) is my own for what I say. (Including that statement...) Sometimes even I wish I could shut up. Sigh.

Sean+ said...

On the subject of "looking up to s-p for spiritual advice." I am sitting here appreciating the irony of the fact that I do, in a way, read his blog for spiritual advice, but only and precisely because I do not read it for that purpose. I read him because he is knowledgeable and because he is honest (and funny, too, of course). His honesty means that I find much good counsel in his writing. But if I read him for advice or counsel, putting him in the place of a spiritual director or teacher, it wouldn't work. Most of what I get out of him that is really important comes from his admissions of failure and his letting me accompany him in his struggle and journey. That's not really what I need from my Father in Christ.

Athanasia said...

I wish I were done growing up too.

John said...


Thanks for this (and all the comments.) As you say, Lent is not about the food at all. Seven years in, I find I too feel less guilt over my failures in Lent. In fact, I am almost matter-of-fact about it—not psyched-up at all. I’ve always been pretty good at sanding-off the rough edges of Lent. I can stay away from meat, cheese and eggs without much problem. But beyond that, I do not pay much attention to what something is cooked in or flavored with. A dash of milk and a bit of butter in my morning oatmeal goes on Lent or not. And the identification of beer as liquid bread is an article of faith with me. But I don’t kid myself that I am really keeping the fast. If I were, I wouldn’t be thinking the thoughts I have been, or comparing myself (favorably) to others. Avoiding the hamburger is easy (or at least it is 2 weeks in.) Avoiding that other is the real struggle for me.

Anonymous said...

Great article. At times I have focused too much on the adherence (or non-adherence) of the fast during Lent, and neglected the increased prayer, additional services, self examination, love and kindness to others, and so on. You blog provided fresh insight into achieving goals during Lent. Thanks.

Drewster2000 said...


Please don't shut up. You share your life online for better or worse. And you have such great followers that they would soon let you know if it was for worse.

Your life, with all its failings, has been an enormous witness to many - especially since you started blogging and podcasting.

Plenty of us struggle with Lent. We need God with skin on to know how to handle it. We need someone walking in the steps of the God-man to show us the way.

As the commentors have said, you don't replace a spiritual director or a priest, but your witness has been Christ to us nonetheless.

If that witness is to not blog for awhile or not do Lent for a year or whatever else, fret not. Only continue your quest to acquire inner peace so that the thousands around you may continue to find their salvation.

Rebecca M. said...

S-P, you seem to be in a decent spot ... not sure it really sounds like burnout, so much as mellowing into living your life as an Orthodox Christian rather than trying to make yourself into some image of what an Orthodox Christian should be. As Pangloss said, "Il faut cultiver le jardin." Just getting on with it, without the drama and without heroics, is the sometimes most heroic task of all.

-- Rebecca M