I’m in the semesterial doldrums, with a case of Spring Angsting (which does sometimes result in an impression of fever) and wondering “what shall I do next year?” Not my favorite time of the year.
NOTE: The following is my private opinion; it would have probably been more profitable to talk about “keeping the spiritual fast” by making a special effort to fight against the passions, but that’s kind of a different topic, with which I do agree, but perhaps with a similar caution that, for instance, to “give up” sloth by sleeping five hours a night and rising at midnight (on your own initiative) is, if you’re like me, probably a bad place to start.
I don’t want to write about giving something up, actually. I suppose I’m going to be living mostly off of bread and beans this coming Lent, with some plain noodles and the occasional soup. Sometimes I intend to go out and purchase oranges from the market. I don’t want to write about giving things up because I’ve been sleeping on a mat on the floor, curled up beside the heater for the past month, and am still usually cold; because I’ve begun to be surprised to learn that a stranger speaks my language, or even to see strangers speak with one another or overhear people in films; because I can hardly manage to pray in church and have only managed to stay for two entire services in a month; because after three years I still constantly chastise myself for not teaching better; because I can hardly get out of bed in the morning; because I’ve got the mid-semester blues. This year I’m giving up meat and dairy, of course — along with daily showers, understanding strangers, Mexican food, peanut butter, lettuce salads, videos, Wednesday soup suppers, well paved streets, riding in cars, personal space, and weekly encouragement from people who are on the same page as myself. So I don’t want to write about giving something up.
This is, in large part, a reaction against a lot of Orthodox and evangelical literature, along with some sermons, urging us to give everything up for Christ. It conjures up images of a hermit in a cave on his knees ten hours of the day and night, living off of herbs, dry figs, and a well he walks to five miles a way. There have been such hermits, but if only such people could enter the Kingdom of God, then it would be a pretty severe and empty place. As it happens, I don’t believe that God created all of us with the intention that we each become a cave-dwelling hermit, though He did create us with the intention that we should love Him more than anything or anyone else, and one another more than our own pleasure and anything that we think will result in personal safety and ease.
Rather, I’d like to write about some things I don’t particularly intend to give up. This Lent, I mean to continue going to the tea shop to read from my kindle and hope for other foreign company; to continue meeting with the other TLGers in and around Gori every week or two; when it gets warmer I mean to resume taking long walks and sky watching; I intend to continue writing every now and again, even if I don’t use any phrases like “the unworthy servant” at any point; to continue reading the occasional online article even if it’s not directly about the Church; to continue visiting my friend’s class weekly; I may even go on a trip to some other town and visit their churches; I mean to listen to nice music if I’m feeling sad; I mean to continue to pray, even if I’m not always standing before a candle, and to go to church, but not necessarily stay for the full three hours; I mean to continue putting sugar in my tea and eating jam when it’s out; if there’s an opportunity to dance, I intend to join in; I don’t even know that I’m giving up all chocolate. Most especially, I don’t intend to give up on the acquaintanceships I’ve formed, even if they involve some idle talk now and again.
Sometimes we need to be a little careful, because a lot of advice in Christianity presupposes either an elder or a grounded community. We’re not supposed to just decide one day to go out and become a hermit. Neither are we necessarily supposed to abruptly decide to throw out all our CDs when music has been very important to us; or to read nothing but the Bible when there are lots of very decent stories our friends are still reading; or to stop using the internet when many of our friends are far away — or make any other sudden, difficult change on our own initiative, when the original state was not in itself very wrong. A monk in a cave is certainly more impressive than an ordinary person who gets up each morning, prays ordinary prayers for ten minutes, goes to work for six hours, and sees some friends over coffee in the evening before returning home to dinner, perhaps a family, and some more rather ordinary prayers — but the latter is a vocation, in the sense that someone should only enter into it if called by God and blessed by a spiritual father, for otherwise he would surely fail.
I would encourage you to keep the fast, of course, and to give to the needy, pray at home and in church, and be careful of your thoughts and actions — but I would also encourage you not to try to give everything up (if you’re that holy, why are you reading this blog? You should be off praying, visiting widows and orphans, and generally being impressive instead). Hang out with some friends (for an hour or two), listen to some (good) music, walk through a park, read a (good) book, dance (nicely), plant some flowers, write a story — and then go to church and reflect on how wicked we all are before God, but how He still, rather miraculously, permits things like music, dancing, flowers, and parks to continue and to delight us.