Please forgive my absence. I've been struggling through a spiritual dry-spell lately. I've had little to no inspiration; all spiritual reading and prayer have given little consolation; and I feel as though all zeal has been sucked from my soul. Just struggling to live day-to-day and to maintain something of a spiritual life has require a great deal of effort from me. I'm sure you all know how that goes.
However, as I woke up this morning it dawned on me; today is Ash Wednesday in the Roman tradition. Monday marked the beginning of the Great Fast for Catholics of the Byzantine and Maronite (and I presume the other Oriental Catholic) traditions. Great and Holy Lent is upon us! I don't know how I missed this. This great and holy season just sort of snuck up on me.
I've always loved Lent. For me it has always been a time to refocus my heart, mind, and energies on what matters most; i.e. my relationship with God the Trinity. So often I see folks get caught up in the rules of fasting and abstinence. I remember a Greek Orthodox friend of mine making a somewhat snarky comment about the ease of the fasting rules for Roman Catholics. I've seen other Catholics bemoan the relaxing of the fasting rules for their traditions (Roman, Maronite, whatever). I've often also gotten the feeling that friends of mine were looking critically over my shoulder to ensure that I was maintaining the fast. To me this all seems to miss the point of the season.
Fasting is important, don't get me wrong. We should definitely follow the rules for fasting according to our particular tradition to the best of our abilities. That last bit is the most important part; to the best of our abilities. Not everyone has the strength to pull off great feats of fasting. One wise move that the Melkites made several years ago was to establish norms for "beginner," "intermediate," and "advanced" fasting (although I don't believe they used that language). Essentially they established minimum norms while at the same time affirming their traditional fast and holding that up as a goal to work toward. Basically they said, "Here's what our norms are. Do what you can. Push yourself, but don't injure yourself."
But the whole point of fasting is not that we are not permitted to eat certain foods, or until a certain time of day, or what have you. The point of fasting is that we take our minds off of even some of our most basic physical necessities in order to refocus on the more important spiritual necessities, the "one thing needful" so to speak. Food is good (VERY good in my opinion), but it cannot be allowed to dominate our lives. We need to be reminded that God is our heavenly Father and that He does and will provide for even the most basic and mundane needs of our bodies while at the same time supplying the needs of our souls, our innermost person. The Great Fast, Lent, is a time to refocus on our relationship with God by reaffirming our complete and utter dependence upon Him. In a sense Lent is about humbling ourselves enough to admit our poverty without Him. We have nothing apart from God.
That is actually one of the reasons why repentance is meant to be a joyful event, not a guilt-trip. This morning, as I was reading one of the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse, I was reminded that repentance is meant to be joyful. Why? Because of what precedes repentance. Before we repent, we recognize that something is disordered within us and around us. We recognize that we have done wrong. We have injured ourselves and our neighbors. We recognize that we deserve punishment. But where do we turn? What hope do we have? If you watch the people of the world it is interesting and sad to see where they go: drugs, alcohol, sex, cutting, food, etc. Even a disordered focus on building a utopia here and now is a result of the recognition that something is not right. But we know from experience that any attempt for man to build utopia of his own power and will fails.
Repentance is about the recognition that something is wrong, but then seeing that God, through the incarnation, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and glorification of His Son, has offered us shelter from the evil around us. We just need to embrace Him. We need to come under the shadow of His wings, a shadow cast by the Cross, a Cross that gives us hope.
That's what repentance is all about. So whether your Church has strict fasting laws, relaxed fasting laws, or provides norms for both doesn't really matter. What matters primarily is the interior disposition as we follow the rules for the Great Fast. Are we looking over our shoulders to see what others are doing? Or are we looking within in order to untangle ourselves with the help of God's grace from the snares of the world, the flesh and the devil? Are we looking ahead to the open arms of our almighty Father in order to run into His embrace? May heaven consume us!