“Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!”
Great lent and Passion Week are generally the most spiritually charged periods of an Orthodox believer’s year. During Great Lent, we follow the example set by our Lord Jesus Christ, who fasted on our behalf forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:2). We anticipate receiving the ‘Word’ just as Moses received the written word of God on the two tablets (Exodus 20). In preparation for the Incarnate Logos (Word), the Church, in her wisdom teaches us to:
- Fast – to abstain from feeding the flesh and focus on feeding the spirit.
- Perform prostrations (metanyas) – to bring us to our knees in humility and return to our mark (that is, God).
- Attend extra Liturgies compared to that when we are not fasting.
- Read and remember the lives of the saints.
- Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand (Matthew 3:2).
During Great Lent, we may have felt like we were able to push the world out of our lives for this period and focus only on Christ. We often take this time as a time for repentance; a time to bring the body into subjection; a time to let the spirit grow while the fleshly desires are diminished.
The problem, however, that many of us face is that once this period is over, we tend to revert to our old ways. Sometimes we may even swing the pendulum further back in the wrong direction! We feel like we’ve worked so hard and so this should be our time to kick back and relax. We may even say to ourselves, “There’s no fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays or metanyas; even the Church wants us to relax”.
Great Lent is a time where we are reminded that Christ is the true Physician who is needed by those who are ill in sin, for He did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17). God’s pleasure is in the return of a sinner so that he will not die in his sin. When God sees His child returning to Him from sin, He has compassion and goes to him, kissing him, and welcomes his return by saying, “It was right that we should make merry and be glad” (Luke 15:32). It is a period of self-reflection and a beautiful period of repentance, where we usually experience the bulk of our spiritual benefits.
The prominent feature of this period of the Holy Fifties is joy. The Church prays with a festal tune in all her liturgies and prayers, including the funerals, with the constant reminder that death has no power over us: “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55) During this period, the Church lives the life of joy, which was experienced by the holy disciples after Christ’s resurrection and His appearance to them. There are no prostrations during this period to symbolise the victory over sin through Salvation.
Often we use this period as a ‘break’ from our spiritual lives and enjoy the food which we missed out on during Great Lent. The enemy uses this period as a perfect opportunity to lay to waste that which has been developed during the Fast. We see this corruption occurring when we take rest and give ourselves a break. King David is a prime example of this when he chose to stay home from war, which led to his downfall with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1). It is no surprise that we are more likely to fall when we are free or give ourselves an excuse to rest.
The Holy 50 days presents us with different struggles to that of Great Lent. We complain of spiritual dryness, returning to former lusts or a loss of motivation when it comes to our spiritual life. So, here are a few tips to help combat these issues, remembering always St John’s command to “Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward” (2 John 1:8).
Beware of what you eat: During this time, we are allowed to eat whatever we please and so we often indulge in our food and end up over-eating. This, by nature, causes us to be lazy or, the more common term, gives us a ‘food coma’. Consequences of this food coma will include a lack of self-restraint, gluttony and difficulty in prayer and spiritual discipline. The advice given to us through many of the ancient Fathers is to watch what we eat and eat in moderation. After all, it is important to realise that “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify” (1 Corinthians 10:23). We will find that once our stomach has been controlled, we will have more power over former lusts and the temptations that we experience.
Be consistent in your ‘spiritual canon’: A spiritual canon is a set of daily prayers or tasks that we receive from our Confession Fathers or spiritual guides. Typically, this will include Bible readings, Agbia prayers and attending Liturgies. Often, people will argue that the Agbia is not “beneficial to them, boring or dry” or that they read their Bible and “don’t understand it”. During these 50 days, we want to build on what we have worked on in Lent and grow, and consistency is key to growth. We are generally encouraged to read more spiritual books to replace our lack of metanyas. Reading occupies and fills the mind with spiritual thoughts, which combats an idle mind. It is encouraged to push through the idea that it is “boring” and realise that for any benefit or gain, hard or non-enjoyable work must be done – like that of training at the gym. The aim is to enjoy prayer and reading and this will only come through training.
Pope Shenouda III says “Force yourself in prayer rather than in any other work, because through prayer you remove all the walls between you and God”. If we do not pray, then we cut ourselves off from our source of Life. Structured prayers have been set by the Church to teach the heart how to pray. Arrow prayers such as, “Have mercy upon me, oh God” teach us that consistency of communication in any relationship will lead to a fruitful one. As Pope Shenouda III reminds us:
“The one who is successful in their prayer is the one who is successful in their repentance”.
Understand the need for prayer: Understanding the reason we pray will make prayer more enjoyable. Pope Shenouda III says, “Some people think that in praying that they are giving to God; they give Him words, time and feelings but prayer in its simplicity, is a matter of taking from God”. Until we realise that we are the ones in need of prayer and in need of God, we will not be successful in our spiritual lives.
So, let’s keep these points in mind:
- Just because we are not fasting that does not mean that all our senses are allowed a lack of restraint.
- Gluttony is a sin that we have to be careful not to fall into because it leads to further complications.
- Consistency in prayer leads to growth.
- Understanding the reason we do things helps us to do them wholeheartedly.
- During Lent and Holy Week, the Church taught us with strictness to avoid many types of food and we should still apply this discipline during the Holy fifty days.
May the Lord grant that us a life of joy in Him, always remembering His passions and His submission so that we may hold steadfast to the lessons we learned during Holy Week!
SAYG ~ anonymous.