I have fallen for this before: the giddiness of filling my cart with all things meat and dairy-free, the euphoria of rising early to bulk up a rule of prayer thinned out by inattention, the welcoming of silence. I have fallen for the romance of Lent’s inception like a lover falls hard for her idealized notions of intimacy, untested by time or turmoil. Initially, my passion is what inspires me to attempt the unthinkable. My spiritual adrenaline is what fuels my desire to turn my back on what is valued by a culture obsessed with immediate gratification. My yearnings for escaping myself hurl me straight into the arms of the Church.
For a few glorious moments I am tuned in to the contemplative nature of this Fast, spending days in prayerful awareness of Christ and His sacrifice for me. It is natural and good to take pleasure in a honeymoon, as long as the pleasure is enjoyed for the fleeting, tingling happiness that it is. See, here is where I take the bait, where I am lured by the faulty impression that only pleasure equals substance. Somewhere, I picked up a debilitating habit of losing interest when the sparks die down, and the fireworks fade into puffs of smoke barely visible in the heaviness of an evening sky. I know this about myself, and yet it continues to be an effective tool for crippling my progress and blinding my vision. Because hell is unaccustomed to these pursuits of transcendence, it attacks me with viciousness using subtle diversions and twisted truths.
It is usually about three weeks into my Lenten journey that the hunger overwhelms me, when my cravings for variety simmer slowly with resentment. Like the Israelites I pout at my portion of manna, and grumble despite the promise of Milk and Honey. At that point, my strength gives way to weariness. Thus I arrive at a fork in the road. Two choices lie mapped out before me. What will I do with the hunger?
Having emptied myself of enthusiasm, my thoughts become ravenous for a distraction. If I could just take a break from the intensity for a while, turning off the meditations chewing through my insides like a termite, then I could find myself again and seek out the original warmth of Lenten satiety. Inevitably I turn toward the wide and easy, where questions of life and death seem too extreme and counterproductive, where I shake off the burden of restraint in exchange for a regrettable indulgence in the sugary, empty promises of secularity.
But what if this time I expected the starvation? What if I separated my feelings from obedience? I would know then that stumbling upon a fork in the road did not mean I had failed, but rather had arrived at Lent’s climax. We are never told, “Blessed are those who can take or leave righteousness.” Christ needs my emptiness, my desperation for nourishment, in order to bless me with complete fulfillment. What if I took that burden to Him, handing over all of my guilt, fear, resentment, and weakness, without a single ounce of regret? What if this time, at my lowest, I took one more step down that narrow path, in faith, and discovered the “pearl of great price”?
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Blessed are they who have been disappointed by the flimsy offerings of wealth, lust, power, and beauty, and are longing now for something solid and secure. Blessed are they who come to that fork in the road, and cry out to the Lord for mercy. This Lent, by the grace of God, I will pace myself through the mountains and valleys leading upwards to Pascha. This Lent, I hope to revel in my honeymoon and then focus in on the eternal rewards of perseverance, of laying aside everything for the Kingdom of Heaven.
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