We have had excellent attendance for the first two parts of the Great Canon of Repentance on Monday and Tuesday evening of this first week of Great Lent. That includes some of our Church School age children and young adults. I encourage others of you to be present either this evening at 7:00 p.m. or tomorrow evening. And then there is the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts on Friday evening at 6:00 p.m. I believe that a "good beginning" to Lent can go a long way toward a "good ending."
It certainly may seem premature - if not a bit ludicrous - to already allude to the end of Great Lent. Having just embarked on this journey, the end is not quite yet in sight! But I bring this up with a pastoral purpose in mind. I have, in previous years, raised the question: "Is there life after Lent?" With this question I am asking whether or not there is something good and wholesome that we practiced in Great Lent that we can take with us once the season is over. If so, then it may be then that we can speak of a "good lent." Yet, how often do we immediately go back to our earlier patterns of living as if Great Lent never really occurred? Or, as if Lent was some kind of pious interlude interrupting our "normal" way of living to which we eagerly return as we wipe our brow in gratitude that the ordeal is over! Obviously, we bring the fasting element to Great Lent to an end. But there is hopefully more to the season than adherence to fasting rules.
Bearing this type of approach and experience in mind, I would offer the following pastoral and practical advice: Is there some practice, habit or attitude in your life right now that you very much desire to eliminate from your life? Or, to pose that question with a bit more bluntness: Is there any such thing in your life that you should eliminate from your life as a Christian? Something sinful or at least something that undermines your relationship with God and your neighbor? With some effort, determination and focus - nourished by prayer, humility and a reliance on the grace of God - why not let this Lent be the "beginning of the end" of that practice, habit or attitude that you desire/need to overcome once and for all? Then there would indeed be "life after Lent!" Taking lent seriously forces us to come to terms with our sinful inclinations, as well as serve as the appointed opportunity to face up to and to struggle against those very inclinations with their eradication in mind as a goal.
If we look to our profound spiritual tradition in the Church, we know how the great saints of the past catalogued the more universal and characteristic "bad habits" that either tempt or actually afflict us to one degree or another. These "bad habits"/vices the Fathers called "the passions" (Gk. ta pathi) The presence of the passions would preclude the possibility of obtaining "purity of heart." The classic list of the eight passions, first drawn up by Evagrius of Pontus (+399), called the great "psychologist of the desert," include:
6. spiritual listlessness/lassitude (the technical word behind this being akedia )
A certain "self-love" - here understood as an unhealthy self-absorption or self-regard - is the "mother of the passions" according to Evagrius. We hear about these passions and their harmful spiritual effect in the Great Canon of Repentance:
A soiled garment clothes me - one shamefully stained with blood flowing from a life of passion and love of fleshly things.
I fell beneath the weight of the passions and the corruption of my flesh, and from that moment has the Enemy had power over me.
Instead of seeking poverty of spirit, I prefer a life of greed and self-gratification; therefore, O Savior, a heavy weight hangs from my neck. (Tuesday evening, Ode 2)
Rhetoric or reality? You have to decide for yourself as you stand quietly in church as these troparia (verses) from the Canon ring out.
Actually, these passions begin as "thoughts" (Gk. logismos/oi) that assail the mind. (So that same list may at times be called the "eight thoughts"). When entertained and acted upon, the thought enters and lodges itself in the heart, and once rooted there it is a difficult process to uproot that particular passion. What may begin as a temptation from the evil one, will eventually become an ingrained action or attitude that has gained control over us. We are then basically "programmed" to return to that thought or action as our will to resist has become thoroughly weakened. Thus, what is an "unnatural" - because sinful - passion seems to be quite "natural" to us after endless repetition! In our contemporary vocabulary, these very passions are called addictions, though the term addiction is usually used for more concrete vices such as alcohol or drug abuse. Yet, according to our spiritual tradition, we can become as "addicted" to gluttony, avarice or pride as others may be to alcohol or drugs! The ultimate goal is not elimination of the passions, but their replacement with the virtues. Can gluttony and lust be replaced by self-control? Avarice by generosity? Anger by patience or even meekness? Vanity and pride by humility? Warfare against the passions - the negative way of describing this struggle - is simultaneously an effort to acquire the virtues, a more positive way of describing the same struggle.
Is there anything in that list that we need to work on overcoming? The very universality of the list makes that a real possibility! Is anyone just sick and tired of doing the same thing over and over again, even when we acknowledge that it is either sinful or detrimental to our own lives or relationships - beginning, again, with God and neighbor? Only then, however, will we seriously enter into the battle against a certain passion.
Of course, if that all sounds a bit "heavy," or as something that will have to be approached professionally or therapeutically, there may be many simple but very human and positive actions and attitudes that we may desire to embrace beginning with Great Lent and continuing with beyond the forty days and Pascha. Acts of kindness, concern and compassion, perhaps. Do we need to visit a sick friend or call a housebound aunt on the phone more often than we are now doing? Do we need to work at becoming a more positive presence in our work environment? Can we work at becoming more considerate toward others? Are we as charitable or willing to share our resources with others as we can be - especially with the poor and dispossessed? Do we need to change our attitude toward people we disagree with ideologically or politically? Do we still retain vestiges of racial, social or ethnic prejudices that are based on nothing but worn-out stereotypes? With a certain focus on our "church lives," can we begin to read the Scriptures with greater regularity? Or practice charity, prayer and fasting with greater care? Finally, are we interested in becoming a decent human being that just may enrich the lives of others around us?!
As the Apostle Paul wrote: "Now is the acceptable time." Great Lent can become the "beginning of the end" of a way of life we need to abandon; and the "beginning of the beginning" of the acquisition of the virtues we desire to embrace and practice. All this "through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit." I therefore believe that there is indeed abundant "life after Lent!"