Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God; and cry to the Lord.
Lent is here! It’s a special season, and this verse above helps us capture the spirit of this time. The “call” of this verse to sanctify the fast, is a command similar to when proclaiming a war and calling the people to action. It’s not just a, “Hey, we’re just letting everyone know we’re fasting, go on with life.”, it’s more like a “proclaim it from the mountain tops and sound the trump, the people of God are going to war! Get to the house of God and cry out to God for the battle!” It’s not a passive thing. It’s almost like the ancients writing in ALL-CAPS! In fact, the word used for assembly usually meant that for the assembly, everyone ceased from work! That’s one of the reasons why many monasteries during Lent have the monks refrain from their normal labours to a minimal, to attend to the discipline of their fasts.
Lent is a time of battle, it’s a time for spiritual renewal. There are those who are of the school that there should be spiritual discipline all year long, thus no need for a special regimen during Lent, but to most people, this is seen as a time of spiritual renewal, almost like a special New Year’s for Lent. Throughout the year, many of us will have fallen short of our spiritual disciplines. Many of us will have developed and accepted bad habits. Many of us will have lost the consistency needed for spiritual development. This is a time of year that we sanctify, or make holy, or set aside for no other thing than an intense renewal of our relationship with God. It’s a time to vacation from the world that you’ve been addicted to, and spend time with your Spouse, your Father, your God. It’s a time to say that yes, I’ve left you all year long, and it’s time to spend time with You in a very meaningful way.
This blog is meant to just discuss the aspects of a Lenten spiritual program. Lent should be way more than a change of diet. It includes fasting, prayers, spiritual reading, and love. If you do not have a spiritual rule for Lent, communicate with your spiritual father right away so that you don’t lose out on the season.
So how you do sanctify this time for God? It’s to give up the things that are taking you from Him, or the things that slow you down from growing with Him. This is what fasting is. It is saying no to something, even if that thing is not intrinsically evil, for the sake of something else. In some cases, the reason for saying no is to learn how to say no to yourself. In other things, it’s because that thing you’re saying no to, even if not intrinsically evil is weighing you down from growth. You need to identify what some of those things are. It might be Netflix, it might be podcasts, it might socialising on social media or stalking people on facebook for hours. It might be Candy Crush on your phone. There are so many things that we are addicted to, that if you look at the number of hours you spent on those things, and the amount of time you gave to something truly profitable or truly with God, you might blush. I include myself in this! So it’s a good time to get away from these things, and work with your guide to regulate how much time to spend or not spend on those things, and what things to do in its place. The psalm says, “Depart from evil, and do good…” (Psalm 34:14) When you cease from something you’ll need, of course, to do something in its place.
As for the food part. Some people get really worked up about this, others are really excited about it. Yet, there’s a good reason for fasting from the things that we do. I think the problem for many of us is that we do not eat right during the fasts. During Advent we tend to binge eat sushi. During Lent, we hoard up on fried foods and starches, and so we become unhealthy. Yet, if you can try and imagine when these fasts were proclaimed what lifestyles were like – people didn’t hoard food. They didn’t have fridges and freezers or fancy ovens. They didn’t have grills on their counters. So if you can try and imagine what they ate like during this time, it was very much a paleo diet, minus the meats! Ask any vegan paleo person how they feel when their diet is balanced, and I think you will be hard-pressed to find someone who tells you that they feel like garbage. Most people will tell you that they can think more clearly, they feel lighter on their feet, they’re energetic, they’re sleeping better, they’re more productive. They’re great effects. So, try and eat in a way that resembles this to see the effects. You may find yourself in addition to all of these things feeling less lustful, less angry, less agitated, and less lethargic. Give it a try. The problem is not the food as much as the practice. If you want to do things correctly, you can. Nothing good comes without warfare.
Abstinence is a thing. It might not be something everyone is ready for, and that’s why you should really talk to you spiritual father about it. Cutting oneself off from food and water for a particular period while devoted to spiritual exercises (metanoias, readings, prayers etc…) can have great spiritual effect. They can also be the cause of significant arrogance, hubris and spiritual falls. Discretion is advised, don’t self-direct on this point.
There seems to be some misunderstandings about just what repentance means during the fast. I don’t know if it’s the saint movies or the pop Coptic culture or what that makes us think that repentance is beating yourself up and tearing up your clothes. Those might be legitimate signs of remorse for some, but this is not really what repentance itself is. Repentance is a change of mind and heart, it is to recognise that there is something that I am doing incorrectly, that I ought not to do, and to cease from doing it. It is a simple, objective thing that does not necessitate or demand emotional upheaval. You may have emotions about your repentance, but the repentance itself is not an emotion, it’s a thing you do to not do something else! So during this season, it would be good to sit with your spiritual guide and discuss what vices and virtues to work on. If you know that you have a particularly bad addiction to something, this is a good season to start proactively attacking it, rather than laying down and giving up.
No fast is complete without almsgiving, and this is often neglected in our spiritual programs during lent. Our God Himself says this:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
A fast that is acceptable to God demands a loving action. It demands that we are looking outwardly to the whole of community and living the gospel. What good is a Christian fast if the Christian is not behaving as a Christian ought to behave? It’s like having a Vegan convention where the menu still includes meat – it’s illogical to the goals and ideals of the group! Find a way during this season to go into discomfort for the sake of others. By that, I mean, find a way that your giving requires of you time and effort that you would usually direct at your own self and desires. This is a fast pleasing to God, because it is a fast of love. This kind of asceticism is deeper than any abstinence rule you might have.
Bible and Spiritual Reading
Many people during this time choose to have a focused kind of reading. Some people will do the daily lectionary as a whole, others will choose one part of it (Epistles, Morning Gospels, Liturgy Gospels etc…). Still others will take a specific book of the Bible and do an extensive study, like one of the major prophets or Gospels. Others will do a thematic reading like taking a topic of “The Day of the Lord” and studying it. All of these are great. The point in mentioning them is to expose you to ideas you may not have thought of, and the idea of very directed and intentional readings. The Bible is not optional, and it’s one of the most significant doors to hearing the Word of the Lord directly in your life.
In addition to this, many Lent programs will have spiritual readings in them. My own philosophy and recommendation on this is to avoid books that you enjoy intellectually but that do not lend themselves to your spiritual growth (get guidance because each person is made up differently in this department). Instead, delve into the books that teach you holiness. These can be works of spiritual masters, and they may be lives of the saints. It might be sayings of the fathers. The point is to stoke the flame of the Spirit within you to push you toward good works and righteousness. Without being exposed to what holiness looks like, you will have no idea what it is that you ought to struggle or strive toward. Imagine if someone just hands someone a basketball and says, “Go, become great!” How will the person who received that ball know what he can do with that ball on his own? To some extent experimentation will help him, but to see great players play, that will give the inspiration to that person to do drills, to give time, to put in effort. He has seen the goal and wants to move toward it.
Above all else during this period, it is so imperative that attention is given to one’s prayer life. The lack of a real prayer life is in the belief of many, the real reason behind the spiritual weakness of religious communities. We have cut ourselves from dialogue with God by reducing Him to some external existence that we simply raise incense to and visit at His house. Yet the Lord lives within you and wills you to be in dialogue and communion with Him at all times. He wants to hear from you and He wants to speak with you, but unfortunately, we often are not willing to open the avenues of that communication. This is the time to open those doors with earnest and to really have your heart open. Speak with those who excel in prayer, ask them how they dialogue with God, what they learned and how they learned it. Sit with your guide and discuss in detail your prayer habits and what barriers you do or do not feel. Like all things, prayer requires teaching, and for that you need your coach.
That might have been a lot, and everyone is at a different place in each’s spiritual life, so again, please contact your spiritual father and get a program, don’t self-direct on this one at all. Lent should be a season that you crave, that you love a lot but hurt a lot in. The hurt though, is the gym hurt – the hurt of knowing that your muscles are being built, the hurt that brings you joy. You should not exit Lent in the same way you entered it.
May the Lord grant for all of us a prosperous and blessed season to the glory of His Name.