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Today is Clean Monday, aka the beginning of Great Lent for the Eastern Christian churches. Suck it, Rome. Not only do we have an extra adjective before our season of repentance, we’re doing this two days longer than you are. And yes, I believe bragging about it is TOTALLY compatible with everything God said about fasting: “Make sure you look gloomy and let everyone else know how much better your fast is than theirs” Gospel of Pride 1:1.

Thankfully, God has never given me any reason to be prideful about fasting because I suck at it. I am generally a very hungry person who does not like change. Hands up if you’re with me. Don’t think I don’t see you reaching for that Snickers bar. You should give me a bite.

Last year I was enduring the first trimester of pregnancy during Great Inconvenience, I mean, um, Lent, so fasting from anything was unusually difficult. I started by giving up Facebook, and that led to some very unholy frustration and the realization that I needed to change fasts. I tried chocolate, which was also a problem. I finally ended up deciding to give up–wait for it–wait for it–automatic doors. Yes, I decided I would be a true ascetic and force myself to push open my own door. And do you know what? It was a good fast, as evidenced by how much I looked forward to the Monday after Easter so that I could walk through those blessed automatic doors on my way to class.

While I’d like to blame most of this on being pregnant, I tend to think I would have ended up giving up those automatic doors regardless.

I wouldn’t say I’m awesome at almsgiving or prayer either. Even though I know the point of Great Lent is to not be awesome at those things, it is nevertheless difficult anticipating taking on a task which you know will be particularly difficult. Thus, the anticipation of every Lenten season brings about much wailing and gnashing of teeth on my part.

ImageThat was until this year’s Great Lent, when I read Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann in the months prior. Father Schmemann was an Orthodox Christian priest and a brilliant student of theology. In this book, he explains our Eastern Lenten traditions, liturgies and prayers in depth without getting too heady, and he also discusses what we must do in our personal lives to make this season fruitful. What I enjoy most is that Father Schmemann writes about the fruitfulness and the true spiritual fullness of Lent, whereas Lent is so popularly seen as a season of removing and doing without. While we are fasting, there are incredible spiritual gifts to help us truly live all the themes of this season such as the Pre-sanctified Liturgies, the Canon of St. Andrew, and All Souls Saturdays. Even though I knew all of these things existed prior to reading Father Schmemann’s book, he illuminated their meaning and their importance for me while teaching me many facts about our Lenten traditions that I had never learned, such as Pre-sanctified Liturgies being meant to give us the spiritual strength of the Eucharist on Wednesday and Friday because we (are supposed to) fast with particular intensity on those days.

A couple of notes:

1) I know some of you are saying to yourselves “But he’s Orthodox, not Catholic, so why are you reading him?” Byzantine Catholics are essentially an Orthodox church that came into union with Catholicism. We maintain our Orthodox spirituality and theology almost entirely.

2) For Western Christians who decide to pick up this book, be forewarned that Father Schmemann is very honest and occasionally harsh in explaining his disagreement with certain Western concepts, such as Eucharistic adoration. As a Byzantine, I find his disagreement enlightening, but I prefer to honor the validity of those Western beliefs because of our unity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I practice them but that I see them as valid concepts for a Catholic to adopt.

I will probably still suck at fasting, prayer, and almsgiving this year (which is how it’s supposed to be anyway, right?), but I think I will be more able to recognize the fruit of these and of other Lenten practices after reading Father Schmemann’s book. I would highly highly highly recommend Great Lent for any Eastern Christian out there who, like me, generally sucks at or just doesn’t look forward to Lent. I’d also recommend it for anyone interested in learning a little more about the Eastern Christian churches.