By Mrs. Maria Reynolds-Weir
If no man is an island, why does the Great Fast sometimes feel like we are on one? We get to week two or three and feel like curmudgeons stuck on an island in a sea of meat-feasting fish. Congratulations, you are invited to participate in “Survivor: Great Lent.” You will join a team of college and high school students, some professionals, a priest and a monastic on a sunny Greek Isle. This will be your most effective Great Lent ever: No KFC calling to you. No temptation to update your status or blog roll. Furthermore, you will represent the Faith. The cameras promise to ”˜go therefore into millions of living rooms.’ Do not feel pressured, this is an act of your will.
Tucked into your invitation is a handy primer, Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent: A School of Repentance. First, the prize this season, a donation to the charity of your choice, but that is beside the point. Orthodox Christians do not fast for merit. The right disposition is not to add in a few good spiritual habits or serve in a soup kitchen, nor is it to sacrifice meat, dairy, or media thinking you get bonus points from God for living without.
Grab your basic necessities, but leave a bit of room in your duffel bag. In a few short minutes, the group will hop on the floatplane . What do you need to survive Lent? At home what would you ”˜allow’ yourself at the mid-Fast when you are weary? You head into the green room to peruse the goodies offered by producers: prayer books, journals, pens, Bibles, figs, olives, and, cruelty of cruelties, the producers threw some bulk packs of dried jerky, vacuum packed tuna, condiment packets, including mayo, and some candy bars. Skip the meat and hold the processed mayo, but will anyone notice if you read the ingredients list on the chocolate bars? Battle of stomach versus nous, round one. You skip the chocolate and feel pretty good about yourself. Coming out you give your perky smile to the first diary cam.
“Whether I win for my charity or not, I think I will come out a winner. Oh, I know the producers will try to carve us up with some fake challenges, but this is not the usual Survivor, with the same goals and petty bickering. We support each other, like we do at home. As that little book by Fr. Schmemann, the one you gave us, said: “Not only individuals but the whole Church acquires a penitential spirit, and the beautiful Lenten services more than anything else help us to deepen our spiritual vision, to reconsider our life in the light of the Orthodox teaching about man.”
There is a priest and a monastic in the group, surely they packed all the basics for humble services on the island. There is no way this would be a true Great Lent edition without services. You sneak back into the green room to swap out some TP for an icon. Turns out it will be handy sooner, rather than later.
”Let them turn those cameras on us,” you say to the cameras as you hop the plane. They do. They follow you through the pitching of tents, the stubbing of toes, and the first challenge: building an iconstasis from scavenged materials and a compilation of icons.
“Dear Diary,” you say into the webcam on the glorious beach the next morning. “We have all we need: an antimension, a Bible, the Canon and Triodon, and a priest in his cassock. We have this week’s challenge. Along with the usual Great Canon this evening, we must follow the daily cycle of Clean Week services. We are supposed to slow down during Lent, be more attentive. The brakes are full-screeching halt and the dew is on the grass.”
After Orthros there is Hours, a small meal of vegetables, boiled only. Mother Maria, the monastic present, tells you this is called xerophagy. By Four PM, the Canon of St. Andrew begins. You feel a bit light-headed after all the prostrations, but what a work out. You find your mind wandering. “Wonder if my arms look buff when I prostrate before the cameras?” You chastise yourself. “Pay attention to the true purpose of prostrations, dear self, ”˜through them the body participates in the effort of ”˜breaking down’ our pride and self-satisfaction.’”
“Dear Diary,” you say into the cam after Divine Liturgy on Sunday, “the new challenge is Nocturns.” Clonk clonk goes the semitron at midnight. That wasn’t so bad, you think, of the candles penetrating the dark. It is easy on this first night to feel warm and fuzzy in the flickering. In following nights, you sway almost asleep, awakened by the grumbling of your gut.
Soon you are waking at the crack of dawn. You take long walks and on the Sunday of the Exaltation of the Cross. A pretty bird, somewhat meaty, challenges you on the path. Yum, you think I am finding live birds delicious just in time for carrying the Cross with my weak muscles. You look at you shrinking biceps.
“Dear Diary, I will never make it. What is that the Apostle James writes, ”˜Each of you is tempted when he is dragged away by his own desires and enticed? I thought of snapping the neck of a pretty little bird today. My muscles feel so weak, just in time for the Sundays of the spiritual giants.”
After every service, the priest says a few words. By Vespers on the Sunday of St. John Climacus, you suspect that it is not weariness in his voice, but giddiness. He reads from the Great Lent booklet. “Remember that the Church wants us to see the Fast in terms of meeting a maximum. ”˜Everyone must find his maximum, weigh his conscience and find in it his ”˜pattern of fasting,’ say Fr. Schmemann’.”
Why does he bring this up now, to justify maximizing by adding all these services?
“The Church prescribes much for our healing- The Psalter twice over in the week and the daily menologion. We will begin these this week.” You have never prayed so much in your life. Except for finals week, you have never been so sleep deprived. Sleep is all you think.
“Dear Diary,” you begin after Vespers on the Sunday of St. John Climacus, “I think I need to mention I will never climb past the first rung of the Ladder of Divine Ascent.” It seems like an obvious truth. Who can do this? Still, it is humble to admit it, and that is a spiritual bonus. It shows spiritual growth that you can say it aloud. You want the worldwide audience to have a realistic understanding of being a Christian, right? Also, I haven’t lost my temper with any person.” Technically this is true, but what have you thought, you accuse yourself.
Not only is there more reading, but less bread this week. The supply is short and the group decides to save the wheat for koliva on Memorial Saturdays, as a treat. “Powdered sugar or Jordan almonds would be nice,” you say into the diary cam. “I think I saw some berries and I’m glad I read that article on scavenger eating.” As soon as possible you trot out. The lack of food, the increased prayer life, all that silence is squeezing in on you. At the beach, you toss off your t-shirt and dive underwater. Up from the water, Mother Maria is on the sand. You feel a bit guilty, dressed in so little while she is in her robes, worn at the knees. Why is it so impossible to get a minute alone? Suddenly you feel guilty. The only way you can do Great Lent is alone, isn’t it, you think to yourself. No more diary cams. You get the sense you should head off the other side of that stream and hang out over there, before you tear down someone’s tent.
It is the priest who comes to find you. “Do you need to talk,” he calls out? He might as well be yelling “Adam, where are you?” He must have seen your t-shirt, bright orange, in the sea of lush greenery. Time for some Confession you think. He guides you home, to the diptych of Christ and the Theotokos. He seems to push down a bit harder on your crown during the prayers of Absolution. When you face him, he says, “Christ says that a narrow path leads to the kingdom of God and we must make our life as narrow as possible. I’m quoting, of course. But do not be surprised if this is harder than you thought. Also, prepare yourself: we will be home for Holy Week, but this week, each team member will miss a daily meal to read while the rest of us eat.” You look right up into the face of Christ. Suddenly you connect all the dots. The story of Christ, calling a lost Adam in the garden. All of Genesis and the history of the beginning of Salvation, the prophecies of Isaiah, pointing towards the Incarnate Christ coming to save His beloved people, the Proverbs- Wisdom, a woman like the Mother of God, calling out to those in darkness, to those in the streets, in sin, in deserts of their own making.
“This is the final Sunday, isn’t it? Of St. Mary of Egypt and Father Zosimas? Tell me that story again, Father.” He smiles.
“Oh, that’s what you’ll be skipping meals to read this week,” he replies.
Schmemann, Alexander, Rev. Great Lent: A School of Repentance- It’s Meaning for Orthodox Christians. Dept. of Religious Education Orthodox Church in America. NY, NY 1970. Amazon Kindle Edition.