Fr. Theophan: Giving Up For Lent

Icons and candles inside the St. Job of Pochaiv Orthodox Church’s mobile trailer chapel. Photo by Fr. Theophan Mackey

BY FR. THEOPHAN MACKEY
St. Job of Pochaiv Orthodox Church
Los Alamos

As we pass the middle point of the Great Fast, Lent in western parlance, the question often arises from friends not often seen, “So what are you giving up for Lent?” It’s met with a myriad of answers: red meat, chocolate, sweets, movies, etc. 

Orthodox Christians don’t ask. Firstly, because fasting is a personal matter, one that should not be judged by another, and secondly, the rules for the Great Fast are ubiquitous in the eastern faith. Simply, we’re instructed to become vegan, with the funny exception of shell-fish (the best I can figure is that shell-fish, invertebrates, used to be food for the poor and barely considered animal life). You can have the lobster, but you can’t dip it in butter. We don’t ask each other, because we all know what we are supposed to do. 

But that is the way of the whole world, we know what we are supposed to do and generally how we are supposed to live in community. It is selfishness and the requisite inattention that allow us to treat others badly; to put my, or my family’s or friend’s, self-interest or even convenience above the good of others. It appears in a thousand different ways. Driving too fast because we are late, taking that extra time at our break, feigning sleep so our spouse has to get up and tend to the children or dog or whatever.

Self-centeredness rears its ugly head even more subtly, though. When in conversation, instead of listening to our partner, are we formulating a response or recalling a story that will out do theirs? How would it look to just allow them the last word? 

This self, the ego, this narcissism that we all cultivate is the thing that drives people apart, the thing that makes enemies of spouses, of brothers and sisters, our fellow citizens, all of humanity. We often think, “This is not fair!” leaving off the implied, “…to me.” more often, I speculate, than we say, “This is not fair to you.”

Pride is what keeps us from learning from each other, whether in a classroom or just out with friends. The quotation, “If you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room,” has been attributed to many wise people. And it is true that it is good to be around people that raise the level of discourse and understanding. But in this context, I would offer a variation. “If you think you are the smartest person in the room, you are not listening closely enough.” There is something for everyone to teach us, if we can get out of our own way.

During this Great Fast, Lent, maybe we should try giving up something else, something closer to our hearts than our stomach. Let us give up part of ourselves, our selfish ego, our desires and preferences in favor of what is good for the other. We will be better spouses, better parents, better friends, better citizens, if we do. 

As a public confession, I’ll admit that I have never kept the fast completely and perfectly. I love food, too much, I’m sure. That is why I never come down too hard on the rule of fasting. It’s hard to preach cleanliness from the pigsty. But humility is good. It is the mother of all of the virtues and the ground in which wisdom grows. 

What am I giving up for Lent? Yes.