Let me admit up front that I’m a bit rebellious. (If you follow my blog, you already knew this.) But I “want to want to” be obedient. That’s a step towards actually wanting to be obedient. If any of you have ever parented a rebellious child, you know that eventually you figure out that it works better to say, “you can go out tonight after you finish your homework,” rather than, “you can’t go out tonight until you do your homework.” If that seems like a subtle difference to you, you don’t need to read the rest of this post.
So, as each week of the Lenten Triodian brings us closer to the start of another season of Great Lent, I read the various pieces of literature our pastor provides to help us prepare for this annual “school of repentance.” And God knows I need it! But I find that I respond very differently to the literature, depending upon its approach, or even its title. For example, Bishop Kallistos Ware’s familiar “Rules of Fasting” can be helpful because he talks about the spiritual aspects of the fast as well as giving specifics, but I wish the title was more like another piece that Father John set out in the fellowship hall, “Fasting Guildelines.” Words are powerful, and they affect how I respond as I read further. (Want to read more? Here are some links to numerous writings on fasting.)
This morning with my morning prayers I read this quote from the writings of St. Basil the Great:
“Vigils and fasts and acts of mercy are the methods advocated by the saints to attain the spiritual life…. But they must not stand alone, nor must the Christian put his trust in them. Humility must have faith for its principle, and fasting be combined with charity, that is, feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked.”
St. Basil calls fasting and almsgiving “methods … to attain the spiritual life.” Okay. No red flags are going up from my rebellious spirit as I think about what this means. I like methods—like the current method I’m employing to lose weight, my 1500-calorie “budget.” (The word “diet” is a big red flagger for me.) Method just means, “an orderly procedure, process or arrangement.” Order, I like that.
And I’m also remembering how energized I felt a few weeks ago when I filled the trunk of my car with blankets and socks and gave them out to homeless people who “live” only a few blocks from my house. St. Basil’s words remind me that we should be doing this on a regular basis, not just as special times, like Christmas, or when there’s a freeze.
After my Morning Prayers, I read the Gospel reading for the day, Luke 10:19-21. Here are verses 19 and 20: (Jesus is speaking to his disciples.)
“Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”
I read this several times, asking God to help me understand its implication for me, today, right now, as I’m struggling with rules and the approach of Great Lent and even the ongoing struggle with the calorie budget. This is what I heard, after about the third or fourth reading:
Authority over the power of the enemy isn’t the goal of the spiritual life. It’s just the means to an end—spiritual health. Like the calorie budget isn’t the goal of my physical life, just a means to an end—physical health. We’ve been given authority over our own bodies, but without self-discipline we often let them rule us.
But here’s the hard part, for me: I often want the means more than the goals. I want power over serpents and scorpions (and these are different for each of us) and peace more than I want my name to be written in heaven. And I want to lose weight and be slim more than I want to be obedient and disciplined in my eating. It’s like happiness—if we pursue it as a goal, it’s elusive; if we live lives of integrity, it will find us.
So, this year I’m asking God to help change my “want tos” during Great Lent. And to enlarge my heart so that I can learn to love others and not just myself. Clean Monday is two weeks from today. Pray for me, a sinner.