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On Living Lent

by Janice Bidwell

This is the time of year when I take a journey within a journey. It's an annual trip I've taken since I was a small child, and the trip varies year to year. I see this journey as a time to dust off various exercise tools I‘ve stored away and put them to everyday use. Sometimes I forget to put the tools back in the closet when the journey ends and continue to use them day after day . . .

This journey within a journey, or Great Lent, is an increased training period for the exercise of life. Increasing my fitness for this forty day trip is of importance, but staying fit all year is critical for spiritual health. Weekend Warriors (or Lenten Warriors) sometimes over-train during this trip, perhaps with little effect on overall fitness. Some dedicated to training year round arrive in strong condition for this Lenten journey within a journey, but many of us are out of shape and less prepared than we had planned.

The exercise tools for this journey are prayer, fasting, and giving alms. I include another essential tool . . . giving thanks. With this collection of equipment dusted off and in working order I'm prepared for my annual excursion. Born and raised as an Orthodox Christian I’ve spent my lifetime on this path, and I’m acutely aware of my poor overall fitness level. The exercise tools of mine are unimpressive and need far more attention each day than I offer, but they steer me in the direction I must travel on my own long slow journey.

With an Open Heart

Each year this Lenten trip commences with a close peek into my heart, and with a cracked and decaying mirror I assess my own spiritual condition. Sometimes this painful self-evaluation is the most difficult part of the entire journey and continues for a forty day uphill climb. I’m an ordinary struggler and establishing my personal travel plan is an important part of this journey within a journey. It’s clear I must not overestimate either my fitness, or the effectiveness of the exercise tools in my incapable hands, and since I’m not a star athlete I must adjust the equipment for my skill level.

With my eyes focused on the destination, an increased awareness of God’s presence in my life, the exercise tools require adjusting year to year depending on my spiritual condition. The practices outlined by Lenten “laws” fit into an established rhythm of life and prayer for those living within the walls of a monastery. Life for a monastic is the rhythm of Lent in its fullness. My life is not within a monastery, but within the community of my family. I must adapt the fullness of my life to the rhythm of Lent. Within our family community we discuss and develop a strategy for this journey within a journey. Together we outline a travel plan which varies for each member and also involves our community as a unit. We meander along this potholed journey struggling to keep our eyes on God, and not on ourselves.

A Fitness Regimen

Within the heart of each athlete the exercise equipment morphs to varying degrees. For me moderating my diet is part of each and every meal all year long and relates more to my waistline than my heart, so if I’m not wary this journey becomes a prime opportunity to shed a few extra pounds before summer, and the focus swings back to me. Adapting my diet is one of many exercises, and I know alone this tool will not improve my spiritual fitness. Prayer is the power tool of all spiritual exercise, and without prayer my journey down this trail loops around in a large circle. Fasting and Prayer belong together in the workout regimen. Training with one and not the other is like running a marathon on a treadmill dressed in black tie.

Seeing and responding to the needs of others requires the use of a tool which shifts my focus to someone else. For me this may or may not involve direct charity work, but involves my touching the life of someone in a less than obvious way: maybe listening, when I would rather not, and maybe reacting with more thought, when I would rather not.

With a visible outer surface, the straight forward application of “law” skims the surface of my heart keeping me on a spiritual roundabout. Invisible billboards along the training route remind me to give thanks for all my blessings (including those that don’t appear like blessings at all), and guide me toward caring and helping those needier than myself. I'm not a Weekend Warrior; this journey lasts a lifetime. With the same ancient exercise tools used by others for centuries, I travel a small distance each day on my own potholed journey seeking an ever present sense of God.