Now these questions must be asked: How can we apply [Lent] to our lives? What could be not only a nominal but a real impact of Lent on our existence? This existence (do we need to recall it) is very different from the one people led when all these services, hymns, canons, and prescriptions were composed and established.
One lived then in a relatively small, mainly rural community within one organically Orthodox world; the very rhythm of one’s life was shaped by the Church. Now, however, we live in an enormous urban, technological society which is pluralistic in its religious beliefs, secularistic in its world view, and in which we Orthodox constitute an insignificant minority. Lent is no longer “visible” as it was, let us say, in Russia or in Greece. Our question thus is a very real one: how can we—besides introducing one or two “symbolical” changes into our daily life—keep Lent?
It is obvious, for example, that for the great majority of the faithful the daily attendance at lenten worship is out of the question. They continue to go to church on Sundays, but, as we already know, on Sundays of Lent the Liturgy, at least in its externals, does not reflect Lent and thus one can hardly have even a “feel” of the lenten type of worship, the main means by which the spirit of Lent is communicated to us.
And since Lent is in no way reflected in the culture to which we belong, it is no wonder then that ours today is mainly a negative understanding of Lent— as a season when certain different things such as meat and fats, dancing and entertainment are forbidden. The popular question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” is a good summary of that common negative approach. In “positive” terms, Lent is viewed as the time when we must fulfill the annual “obligation” of Confession and Communion. This obligation having been fulfilled, the rest of Lent seems to lose all positive meaning.
Thus it is evident that there has developed a rather deep discrepancy between, on the one hand, the spirit or the “theory” of Lent and, on the other hand, its common and popular understanding which is very often shared and supported not only by laity but also by clergy themselves. For it is always easier to reduce something spiritual to something formal rather than search for the spiritual behind the formal.
We can say without any exaggeration that although Lent is still “observed,” it has lost much of its impact on our lives, has ceased to be that bath of repentance and renewal which it is meant to be in the liturgical and spiritual teaching of the Church. But then, can we rediscover it, make it again a spiritual power in the daily reality of our existence? The answer to this question depends primarily, and I would say almost exclusively, on whether or not we are willing to take Lent seriously.
However new or differentthe conditions in which we live today, however real thedifficulties and obstacles erected by our modern world, none of them is an absolute obstacle, none of them makes Lent”impossible.” The real root of the progressive loss by Lentof its impact on our lives lies deeper. It is our consciousor unconscious reduction of religion to a superficial nominalismand symbolism which is precisely the way to by-passand to “explain away” the seriousness of religion’s demandson our lives, religion’s demand for commitment and effort.
This reduction, we must add, is in a way peculiar to Orthodoxy. Western Christians, Catholics or Protestants, when faced with what they consider as “impossible” would rather change religion itself, “adjust” it to new conditions and thus make it “practicable.” For example, we have seen the Roman Church first reduce fasting to a bare minimum and then practically dispose of it altogether. With just and righteous indignation, we denounce such an “adjustment” as a betrayal of Christian tradition and as minimizing Christian faith. And indeed, it is the truth and the glory of Orthodoxy that it does not “adjust” itself to and compromise with the lower standards, that it does not make Christianity “easy.”
It is the glory of Orthodoxy, but certainly not of us Orthodox people. Not today, not even yesterday, but long ago we have found a way to reconcile the absolute demands of the Church and our human weakness, and this not only without “losing face” but with additional reasons for self-righteousness and good conscience. The method consists of fulfilling these demands symbolically, and symbolic nominalism permeates today our whole religious life.
~Adapted from Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent