Zacchaeus strove to see Jesus Christ from a “unique vantage point”. If we approach our Lenten efforts in a similar manner it is possible that we too will see Christ as clearly as did Zacchaeus. If we see the time of Great Lent as an opportunity to offer ourselves to God, then perhaps we also will be invited into His presence. Below are some suggestions for Great Lent, that may help limit the distractions of life that keep us from seeing Christ clearly, while quieting our being during the time of Great Lent.
Participate in as many of the liturgical services as possible.
- Look over the liturgical calendar and plan for the upcoming services.
- Start your Lenten journey on the right foot by attending the Vespers of Forgiveness on the evening of cheesefare Sunday.
- Be adventurous- Come to Matins at 6am during clean week.
- Come to the Canon of St Andrew during clean week. It is an amazing and beautiful service that makes repentance so clear to us and it is great exercise as well!
- Although the Liturgy is not served during weekdays of Great Lent, the Presanctified Liturgy is available and offers us an opportunity to be strengthened by the Holy Eucharist through the week.
- Do some studying of the liturgical services- Where does the service of Vespers come from? What are the different parts of the Divine Liturgy? What exactly are the “secret prayers” and why are they secret? When did the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts come into being? Take some time to do this and a whole new understanding of your faith and appreciation for the services will be opened to you.
- Make a commitment to come to Vespers on Saturday evening and bring your children as well.
- Take the day off of work and keep your children home from school on Holy Friday. Come to the services and do your best to keep this day holy by dedicating the day to prayer and silence.
Make a good confession.
- We have 40 days to focus on our repentance. Confess your sins and unburden your heart.
- See a good article on preparing children for confession.
Strive to keep the fast as the church directs us to keep it.
- Don’t make concessions or bargains with yourself or with the Church on how you will keep it. That being said, talk with your spouse and children about your expectations and decide as a family what you will do and what your expectations are.
- Talk with your kids about the fast. Educate them and let them participate in the fast as well.
Give to those in need.
- Almsgiving, along with prayer and fasting make up the three stranded cord that I refer to as the “Lenten rope”. These three combined strands, when practiced together, will give us a strong rope to hold onto during the time of the fast when things may get shaky.
- I know of someone who fasted from eating lunch during Great Lent. The money that was saved by not going out for lunch each day was set aside. At the end of the fast, the money that was set aside each day was given to a family in need.
- You can also give to the parish and direct that money be used toward our charitable offerings.
Get up early.
- Do this as an offering to God by giving yourself time to pray and to listen for Him. Give yourself a few minutes to read the holy scriptures and contemplate the coming day before setting off to work and school.
Pick a spiritual book to read.
- The parish library is a great resource and so is our bookstore. Read the lives of the saints, the Psalter (psalms), or a book on prayer. I have put together a list of suggested Lenten reading material at the end of this list.
Turn off the T.V.
- If possible, put it out of sight for the entire time of Great Lent.
- If you can’t do that, keep it off during the weekdays.
- Maybe limiting yourself to watching a family movie together on Sunday afternoon with the kids is a good way to put the television back in its proper place in the home.
- Read the book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. It’s a great read and you will never look at the television in the same way again.
Limit your time on the computer.
- Most of us have to be on the computer for some amount of the day or because of work but we can still limit our personal time specifically spent on the Internet.
- Set a limit on how much time you will allow yourself to be on the Internet each day outside of work. Set a timer if you need to!
- Do you feel that you are a slave to your smart phone or email? If so, set a limit on how many times a day you will check them--maybe just once or twice a day.
- Take a break from Facebook. One of the “great sayings” of Great Lent is to keep your eyes on your own plate. What this means is that we are to not concern ourselves with what others are doing but to only focus on our Lenten offering. You can’t do that if you are updating or checking the status of others.
Turn off the radio in the car during your commute.
- Enjoy the quiet and say the Jesus Prayer.
Set aside time solely for family time.
- Eat dinner together.
- Come to church services together.
- Play board games together.
- Sit together and read out loud.
Rediscover an old hobby or take up a new one.
- Even monks need a break from prayer, church services, and reading every now and then. They all have some sort of hobby or craft that they do when they feel to be inspired in another way.
Some good online articles for your considerating during this period of preparation by prayer, fasting and almsgiving:
The True Nature of Fasting
By Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware
Do No Harm
Thoughts on preparing children for confession
By Archpriest Alexei Uminsky
Books suggested by Fr. John
The Holy Bible: If you have time to read only one thing this Great Lent it should be the Scriptures. Consult the Church calendar or lectionary for the readings of each day.
The Lenten Triodion: Second the to Bible the most important book for a Christian in Great Lent.
Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarion: A wonderful guide to the special services and commemorations of Great Lent and the Paschal season. You will use it every year.
Great Lent, Alexander Schmemann: An insightful presentation of the meaning and purpose of the great fast. Worth reading over and over again to remind us what we are doing during Lent and why we are doing it.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St John Climacus: This book is read by Orthodox monastics every year during Great Lent. But be warned: this is intense reading requiring much discernment. Not for the faint of heart!
Dorotheos of Gaza: Discourses and Sayings: St Dorotheos is a wonderful instructor and guide to the spiritual life, and he is schooled in the wisdom of the desert fathers. If you find The Ladder of St John Climacus a little daunting St Dorotheus might be the one for you!
On Repentance and Almsgiving, St John Chrysostom: St John was a monk who was ordained a priest and, eventually, became the Archbishop of Constantinople. Living in the monastic desert and then becoming a pastor to Christians living in the world, he remains wonderfully suited to speak to us who live with families, have jobs, and who seek to be “in the world but not of the world.”
The Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St Macarius: Beautiful and challenging homilies which resonate with the call to purify the heart so that we can experience the Kingdom of God within.
Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: Lives and counsels of eight Greek elders of the twentieth century, reminding us that living the Christian life is still possible – and essential - in our day.
Father Arseny: An account of one Russian Monk-priest’s holiness in the midst of a Soviet gulag. Beautiful and inspiring beyond words!
Beginning to Pray: Met. Anthony Bloom’s little book on prayer has been a great help to many modern Christians who have sought to not only “say prayers” but really begin to pray. Also recommended is his Living Prayer.
Way of the Ascetics: Tito Colliander has done us a great service by paraphrasing and organizing the teachings of the Fathers on various aspects of the ascetic life.
Wounded by Love: A must read for everyone. Contains the life and teachings of Elder Porphyrios, a modern-day saint.
Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus. This ultimately joyful work is one of the few books available in English to deal exclusively with the problem of despondency-acedia-and how it can be overcome. Bunge analyzes the views of Evagrius on the dangers of acedia. Evagrius’ 4th century teaching provides insight to this “silent despair” that continues to haunt modern day man.
There are any number of books, pamphlets and on-line sources which document and explain the Orthodox practice of fasting during lent and other seasons and days of fasting. You can look these up. Basically, some days are more relaxed than others, but the fundamental concept upon which the various relaxations and exceptions are built is abstinence from animal products (meat, fish,dairy) as well as from wine (alcoholic drinks) and oil. This means that the basic lenten diet is a vegan diet as well as oil-free and alcohol-free.
So the big picture or the big principle is the recommendation that, subject to health considerations for a very few, Orthodox Christians should attempt to follow a vegan diet during fasting seasons and on fasting days. Of course, when we say a vegan diet we are also talking about avoiding expensive and luxury items on the one hand, and obsessing about food on the other.
A good rule of thumb is simplify, simplify, simplify. Be frugal - and what you save in grocery monies contribute to our food bank or Deborah’s Place or Pacific Garden Mission or another worthy cause. Cut back on quantity, which is to say don't take second helpings, leave the table satisfied but not stuffed, don't over-eat in order to make up for not eating the things you usually eat. Don't feel sorry for yourself and binge on vegan comfort food. Be strict with yourself and do not look at what other people do or don't do.
On the other hand, if you do not fast, do not make it difficult for those who are fasting; be supportive and do not tempt them. Don't justify not fasting or breaking the fast with the argument that hospitality trumps fasting.
Hospitality is an attitude, not a meat-platter, and can be expressed in vegetarian and vegan terms as well as carnivorous ones! It is quite possible to have a wonderful time without, for example, meat or booze (and if you can't have a wonderful time without them you have a very serious problem).
Finally - if your doctor told you that you must go on a vegan diet for a while - or if your personal trainer put you on such a regime to help get you in shape - no one would say boo or second guess what you were doing. Why then do we sometimes find such an unwillingness to accept fasting as the time-honored, biblical and traditional, and widely practiced spiritual discipline it is? Sometimes we know that something is right when there is such self-justifying resistance...
But the short answer to how should we fast is: with a light heart and a serious purpose, glorifying God for the opportunity! (Fr. John)