Today’s guest blogger is Samantha McElfresh, who was a student at a high school I taught at a few years ago. She is now a junior at the University of Tennessee studying English and secondary education with the goal of becoming an English teacher. She will be running her first half-marathon today! We wish her good luck.
It never fails — every spring, at least one person questions me about Lent. Sometimes they have no clue what Lent is, and sometimes they are curious about the deeper meaning behind it. Sometimes they have questions (or attacks) on specific practices like fasting or abstaining from meat. These types of questions are nothing new to me; in a region that tends to be uninformed about Catholicism and Orthodoxy, I often get grilled about topics like icons, saint worship, and whether or not I am “saved.” As someone who has also been in a relationship with a non-believer for two years, I am used to questions about the legitimacy of all kinds of Christian beliefs and practices, nevermind the “Catholic” ones. However, people’s questions sometimes make me stumble — how legitimate is Lent? What is its purpose, and how much of my explanation is the design of my own experiences? My own biases?
Lent is my favorite time of year because it’s a time of rebirth, of starting over — plants are blooming, grass is growing, and the earth is warming up again. It is also a special time for me because it was during Lent that God first revealed Himself to me. Yes, I know — that sounds crazy. God only talked to people in the Old Testament, right? And I am certainly no Moses. It probably doesn’t help to add that I was in seventh grade; surely if God were to speak to someone, it wouldn’t be to someone twelve years old. But it did happen. That was the first year that I made a commitment to try and better myself along with giving something up during Lent. In addition to giving up soft drinks, I committed to try and look for the good in everyone, but I was not doing a very good job. In fact, I was feeling more angry and alone than ever. Then one day in class when I was having a particularly horrible day, I locked eyes with my teacher. All she did was smile at me, but I felt the voice of God speak through her smile. I didn’t really understand it at the time; all I knew was that I felt like I had been set on fire. Later, though, I realized that His message had been loud and clear. “Be still,” He said. “I love you, and you are not alone.” Before, I believed in God because other people had told me to, but in that moment, I knew for myself that God was real — I could hear it and feel it. I also knew He wanted me to love Him and serve Him and that He wanted me to love and serve others, too. After that moment, I started changing and maturing really quickly. My Lenten commitment was easier, helping others was easier, life was easier . . . He had given me a sense of direction, and I felt my spirit come alive. I became the only really religious person in my family, but strangely enough, I didn’t feel alone. That moment played the central role in shaping me into a person of faith — into who I am now — and Lent has been special to me ever since.
If that’s not legitimate, then I don’t know what is. And it is okay if my story sounds too incredible to believe; ultimately, it’s up to me to cherish it and find meaning in it and fulfill whatever purpose I might have.
That explains why Lent is so important to me, but it doesn’t really justify the practices of Lent or reveal the reason so many Christians choose to observe it. Probably the most common protest I hear about Lent is that we should be cleansing our spiritual lives every day, not just for one period during the year, and this point is valid. We should try to grow closer to God every day by making more time for Him and focusing on parts of our spiritual life that need work. However, as a human being and experienced sinner, I know that we won’t be able to succeed every day. I have been unsuccessful for weeks at a time before. Our sinfulness causes us to make mistakes daily, and it is nice to have Lent to induce a wholesale re-evaluation of our lives and our commitments to God. For me, it’s the same principle as going on a diet or training for a marathon. In a perfect world, we would take good care of our bodies every day; we would eat healthy foods and get plenty of exercise. However, this is rarely the case because more often than not, distractions, temptations, and demanding schedules get the better of us. At some point we have to decide, I’m going on a diet, and then put forth a special effort to eat the right foods and cut back on unhealthy temptations. We go on a diet intending to make a permanent lifestyle change, and we probably even realize that there will be days when we slip up and cave into temptation. However, we need to have a starting point — some point where we create a regimen and add some discipline to our lives. It is the same for a marathon runner. No one simply wakes up and decides to run a marathon; it takes weeks of discipline and training, and everyone has a couple of bad days. All runners have to begin with that first mile, and over time they build up strength and endurance as they get closer and closer to their goal.
To me, Lent is like a spiritual diet. We may have the best of intentions with our day-to-day spiritual lives, but everyone needs a starting point to truly cut out distractions, beat back temptations, and make more time for God. Lent is an excellent starting point, and practices like fasting and removing material distractions help us focus on removing the barriers that stunt our spiritual growth, even after Easter (or Pascha) is over. Lent is also like training for a spiritual marathon. The relationship with God must start with that first mile, and as our strength and endurance grows, we become better-equipped for whatever marathons God might ask us to run during our lives.
But it has to start with that first mile.
Lent is just as legitimate as any diet or exercise plan you have ever gone on — it’s the perfect time to push the reset button and try to build up healthy habits. However, the beautiful thing about God is that He lets you push the reset button at any time. Whether it’s Lent or not, He is always there with His mysterious forgiveness and unending love. He is always ready to let you know you are not alone, whether you are a busy parent drowning in a sea of responsibilities or a depressed and lonely twelve-year-old. Any time is the right time to embark on a journey of spiritual cleansing, and any time is the right time for God to set your heart on fire and call you by name. For me, the right time just happened to be during Lent.