The winter is so far from wearing to its end. I look out the window and see three feet of snow, but the sun is out and there is a freshness on the air when I venture to crack a window or open the door to call my children in, their noses and cheeks sufficiently red and snow gear shining wet across the yard. At least the promise of spring is in the wind, though still far off. I glance at our liturgical calendar and note the number of weeks left until Great Lent, the preparatory time before the greatest annual celebration of our faith, Pascha.
I have read that in many countries, Russia and Eastern Europe most notably, this 40-day period of abstinence from consuming animal products (among other things) was a practical means of getting through the last phase of winter, stretching a family’s supply of farmed goods until the weather relented enough to begin spring planting. The practice is threefold, however: we conserve what we have, but in order that we can give to those in need. Also: we pray and meditate as we work on increasing virtue and diminishing vice, and so draw nearer to Christ in preparation to celebrate His resurrection.
As a newly converted Orthodox Christian, the Lenten Fast seemed a horrible ordeal to be undergone. Admittedly, I was spared the first three years of participation because I was either pregnant or breastfeeding. But the first year I was eligible to participate, I was floored by the intensity of the experience. It also turned out my health was not going to allow me to eat vegan for such a duration without serious consequences. As a result, my Spiritual Director urged me to focus on the spiritual and giving aspects of the time, which were almost harder. Giving is a joy to me, and I can almost never do as much as I would like, but increased prayer and weeding out some of my worse habits proved incredibly challenging. And, after a time, I realized it is supposed to be exactly that. The challenge of leaving one’s comfort zone is immensely stretching. Being accountable to a priest/Spiritual Director ensures accountability. And I have noticed that, especially at first, the spiritual undercurrents in one’s life always make it harder, for me at least. I am always hit hardest when and where I am weakest, and usually just when I think I am starting to do well. I am beginning to find it almost worth a laugh. And I am beginning to settle into the rhythm of the Fasting seasons (they average one per season, of differing duration–Great Lent is the longest). So now, I find myself anticipating the change in the seasons, the change in spiritual rhythms, the outward practices in aid of the inner progress.
The first week of Great Lent is Clean Week, an excellent precursor to good old Spring Cleaning, but with the intent of clearing out all our junk, all we don’t need, and all our grime, personal and physical. In addition, things that we don’t need may be useful to others, and again we are encouraged to give/donate instead of hoard/clutter (a greater and harder act for some of us). We are also encouraged not to spend unnecessarily during Great Lent, to be less materialistic, and again, help those in need with either our time, talent, or resources (either money or “stuff”).
This year, something in me started Clean Week over a month early (perhaps because I usually start when everyone else does, and am still cleaning when Pascha rolls around), and interestingly, something in me followed step by taking a long, quiet look inward. Time to uproot the unnecessary and harmful, time to prepare the soil for the season of planting and growth. Time for the new season, the new “year” in the natural sense of things, and a time where we celebrate Life anew. Glory to God!
Though, knowing me and my house, I may still be cleaning when Pascha rolls around…