Orthodoxy isn’t easy.
As we prepare to enter Great Lent, it’s hard to miss the difficult road ahead: the long services, the deep prostrations, the strict fasts. The Church, in her wisdom, has laid out a path of ascetic labor that challenges us, body and soul, and pushes us to our breaking points.
Unfortunately, we sometimes turn these labors into a point of pride.
We sometimes turn Great Lent into an obstacle course, a series of difficult tasks that we can overcome if we work hard enough. And when we do overcome them, we make it known: we boast about attending each and every Presanctfied Liturgy, about abstaining from meat and dairy and oil, about reading the finest spiritual classics.
We boast about how well we prepared during Great Lent, and look down on those who didn’t.
Keep in mind, this boasting does not necessarily need to be verbalized. More often than not, we boast within.
Great Lent is a time for preparation, that much is true; it is a period that leads us to a deeper and more authentic celebration of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Yet it is not a period to pat ourselves on the back, to congratulate ourselves for our piety and virtue.
Remember, it was the Pharissee who made this very mistake:
“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’” (Luke 18:11-12)
The Pharisee crowned himself with victory, and in doing so guaranteed his defeat.
Because the point of fasting isn’t to be good at fasting, so we can fast more. The point of saying prayers isn’t to be good at saying prayers, so we can say more. The point of tithing isn’t to be good at tithing, so we can tithe more.
The point of all of these ascetic labors is simply Christ, to turn to the Lord with an open heart and humble spirit, to allow Him into our lives to know us and transform us into the saints He made us to be: saints blessed with an eternal life in His Kingdom.
When ascetic labor becomes an end rather than a means, it becomes a stumbling block that gets in the way of knowing Christ.
Unfortunately, if we turn Orthodox Christianity into a dry religion rather than a dynamic relationship with the living God, we tend to remove Christ from our lives and focus more on ourselves. Rather than moving beyond prayer and fasting and almsgiving to an encounter with the Lord, we trap ourselves with the misguided pride of the Pharisee, who could see no further than his supposed goodness.
So we work like the Pharisee to become religious virtuousos, talented fasters and expert reciters of prayers. In doing so, we become merely clanging cymbals, empty of love and disconnected from the Lord (1 Corinthians 13:1).
The truth is that Great Lent is a season of failure. We may succumb to our cravings and sneak a hamburger. Or, we may fast strictly yet snap at our loved ones, grow- ing less patient as we grow more hungry. Or, we may fast strictly and judge those who didn’t.
The same may go for our prayers, our attendance at services, our almsgiving: every aspect of our Lenten struggle will be tinged with failure.
And that is fine, as long as we see and allow the failure to pierce our hearts, to cultivate the compunction and humility we seek to develop during Great Lent. It is important to be aware of the ways we are weak, the ways we lie to ourselves and mistreat our loved ones and condemn our neighbors.
If we refuse to acknowledge the ways we are weak, we will never do what it takes to be strong.
True strength does not come from standing proudly and boasting about our success. It only comes comes when we are courageous enough to admit our failures, to admit that we cannot save ourselves, that we owe everything to the Lord, who is “my strength and my shield” (Psalm 28:7).
May God grant us all an uplifting and nourishing Lenten season.