When I was new to Orthodoxy, I could get downright excited about Great Lent, especially the fast. I would've liked to think that that had everything to do with the chance to draw closer to God. But there are human factors like the sense of novelty, not to mention how cool and "First Century" it all sounded. And there are worse aspects, like the spiritual pride of assuming that any rigors that saints and monastics profited by would automatically feel like second nature to little old me.
Sadder but wiser
I can't remember when that early excitement started to wane. Was it after my first Lent, or my second? Was it after I found that I could not, after all, run the marathon with the Olympic athletes? Or maybe it was when I noticed that even when I made concessions, I still often confronted my weaknesses. Almost every major life-changing event that has happened to me since my chrismation, including job changes (both good and bad), loss of loved ones and relocations, have all happened during Lent and Pascha -- and I think that other Orthodox have told me the same thing. Almost without exception, if life is going to hand me a challenge, it does it during the season of penitence, reflection and fasting, when I feel like my reserves are at a low point.
And, as my friend said, when that happens, I have to have a dialogue with my failings, whether I want to or not. At one time, I was so ambitious about fasting that I made myself ill with the effort. Now, I am so circumspect about it that I feel like I have gotten too cowardly and too comfortable. I got tired of my failures, and so I lowered the bar, only to find that that isn't the answer, either.
I can't wind up these thoughts with a perfect final note. I am asking myself the question as much as I'm sending it forth into the world for fellow travelers: What kind of Lent will I have? Not that everything about it will be in my control (thank goodness), but as far as the parts of it that are, what will I do? Will I try something extreme, and fail? Will I try something too easy, and succeed (which would be the same as failing)?
How can I take things outside my comfort zone without congratulating myself so much that I void any benefits of the effort? How can I keep that blessed tension between asking too much (which is prideful) and asking too little (which is lazy)?
And what will it look like, if I do make progress? Perhaps it would mean that I would actually supercede this idea of knowing what success and failure look like. Perhaps it would mean that next year my questions wouldn't be quite the same.
If there's anything to be gained in putting these questions to myself -- and having the nerve to broadcast them to others -- maybe that could be it: That if this season is, after all, just an ongoing dialogue with your own weaknesses, there are, at any rate, subtle changes in the script.
I would ask for prayers if it didn't seem a little wrong-headed to do such a thing on the internet from virtual strangers. But I feel the need of them this year, and I will attempt to pray more for others as well. Lord, have mercy on us as we begin Great Lent together.