Each year that I have been an Orthodox Christian, when Lent has ended, I have immediately moved into Holy Week mode, becoming even busier that I had been during Lent. I have attended the Holy Week services (at least all those that I could), trying to walk with the Lord Jesus through his last week of life on earth as he taught the crowds and was then betrayed, tried, crucified, and buried. Finally, I have rejoiced with the news that Christ is Risen!, basking in the light of the Resurrection and being spiritually blessed (while at the same time physically exhausted) by the Paschal Matins, Divine Liturgy, and Agape Vespers services. By the time Bright Monday has arrived, I have totally forgotten about Lent.
This year, I thought I would try to do something a little different. In my secular job, one of the many tasks with which I am involved is Program Evaluation. I use various types of data to help evaluate the effectiveness of the various programs that we run in our school district. I thought that it might not be a bad idea to attempt to apply this "evaluation mentality" to the Lenten struggle. So, I have taken some time to reflect on how Lent went this year for me, including what went well and what didn't, with a view toward having an even more profitable Lent next year. Although doing so is somewhat perilous, I thought I share my thoughts on this publicly. My hope is that you will profit spiritually from reading my reflections and that you may consider doing a similar self-evaluation, which I think would be helpful for each of us.
But before I continue, a couple of caveats are in order. First, in evaluating our Lenten journey, we must be careful not to make the evaluation solely about what we ate. In other words, we should not just say, "I kept the fast except for X number of days and only messed up Y times; therefore, I had a good (or bad) Lent!" For the fasting that we do is not an end in itself, but is rather a means to an end, namely, subduing the passions--reorienting our lives so that our soul is in control of our body and not the other way around. Of equal or (I think) greater importance is how things went spiritually. Did we make any progress in our spiritual warfare, or did we just end up eating differently?
Also, in evaluating our Lenten journey, we must beware the temptation to pride, particularly if our Lenten struggle has been mainly successful. If we have kept the fasting rules perfectly, we are in serious danger of thinking to ourselves, "Wow, I did it! Aren't I great?" And if we have made progress in our spiritual life, we face a similar temptation. We must always remind ourself, as St. Paul writes, that any victories we achieve are due to "not I, but the grace of God in me."
I always encourage my parishioners and other Orthodox Christians at the beginning of Lent to set one or two challenging but attainable spiritual goals in addition to keeping the fast as strictly as possible. If we merely say, "I'm going to keep the fast" but make no special spiritual efforts, we gain nothing. But if we go to the opposite extreme and just say "I'm going to sin as little as possible this Lent," I think we set ourselves up for a fall. It is much easier to juggle two balls than twelve! Of course, in addition to fasting, we should pray more, read more and give more, as the Fathers teach us, but that's not what I am writing about today. I'm suggesting that we should take a step beyond all that in setting specific spiritual goals.
For example, I made three specific goals for this Lent. First, I resolved to control my temper, particularly in my dealings with my children (who test me on a daily basis!). Second, I would talk less, particularly in regard to giving my opinion when it is not solicited. And although all of us could always do better, I feel like (thanks be to God) I had a pretty good measure of success in these areas. The third goal I made was to waste less time. I resolved to not watch any movies, and to watch very little TV. For me, these two resolutions are really too easy, because I almost never watch TV or movies anyway. What was tougher was to give up Facebook. I didn't COMPLETELY give it up, mind you, but I probably only spent a grand total of 15 minutes on it during all of Lent (which is a big improvement over the several hours a week I was wasting on it before Lent). I devoted that time instead to additional spiritual reading. And do you know what? I found that I really didn't miss Facebook at all, whereas the reading I did turned out to be a great blessing.
Lest I ramble on forever, let me list some general lessons I learned this Lent. These may not necessarily be true for every person, but I found them to be true in my life.
1. Once you have been observing Lent for a number of years, giving up animal products and alcohol isn't really that hard. (Note: I don't mean that it was all that easy, just that it is doable).
2. What is harder than giving up meat, dairy, etc, is actually cutting down on the AMOUNT that I eat and the number of times I eat. I found that it is all too easy to exchange eating too much meat, cheese, and so on, for eating too much Lenten food. I especially struggled with my craving for sweets. I need to work harder next year on not indulging it.
3. Even harder than cutting down on the amount I eat is eliminating the sinful use of my tongue. By this I don't mean using swear words, which I seldom do anyway, but rather avoiding sarcasm and words that hurt others.
4. Hardest of all (and I really did a poor job of this) is eliminating sinful thoughts. I was astonished at the variety of these thoughts and at the intensity of some of them. It is much easier for me to keep my plate "pure" (so to speak) than to keep my mind pure.
So, this is my "post-mortem" (if you will) on Lent 2009. Now it's your turn. I would love for many of you to post a comment and share your thoughts on this Lent. What did you find relatively easy, and what was especially hard for you? Where did you fail, and where did you enjoy victory? What did you learn? What adjustments will you make for next year? Let me and the rest of our readers know; you never know whom you might help if you do.