On February 23rd I attended a women’s retreat at a local church. The title of this retreat was The Three Great Lenten Disciplines: Fasting, Almsgiving and Prayer.
Mother Melania from Holy Assumption Monastery in Calistoga, California was the speaker. This retreat was very much a blessing to me. I thought I’d take the time to write up my notes so that I could reference them in the future and in doing so I can share them with you. This isn’t a great writing but simply my notes with some thoughts put in now and again.
Mother Melania had some very good insight that you, too, might find edifying. Whether you are orthodox or not fasting, almsgiving and prayer are central to a Christian walk. In the Orthodox Church Great Lent starts on March 11th.
Mother Melania started off by giving us our “basic problem” and sharing with us that we see this in 1 John 2:15-16 (particularly the emphasized)…
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.1 John 2:15-16
Jesus shows us the solution when he goes off into the dessert after his baptism and faces the “basic problems” himself. He is tempted in the flesh by food, he is tempted with pride and he is tempted with his eyes when shown the great city and all that in the world that could be His. He was able to answer and fight these temptations through what?
Prayer and fasting.
Mother Melania shows us that these things (the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life) are the door into our soul. We must learn to close these doors. Lent is a time to turn from the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and the pride of life.
Some things we can do and some people certainly do do:
- We could ignore lent altogether.
- We could fast by the letter of the law, strictly and to a “T”. Substitute everything or eat very rich Lenten foods, like lobster dinners.
- We could go to every single service during lent all the while looking around in the temple to see who is there and who is not and judging our brothers for not being there.
- We could rebuke other for not fasting right or not enough.
And so forth and such. But where would this put us? What would we accomplish?
Why do we do this?
“We have a false sense of who we are.”
Mother Melania gives an analogy of amoebas. Adam and Eve cut themselves off from the head of the body. Isolating themselves. When we approach lent wrong, we approach life(Lent) like amoebas. They live for themselves only. But life is not to be lived alone and isolated. And neither is Lent. Lent is a discipline of the entire body—we do Lent together.
Sin, this “problem” we have with the lust of the flesh and eyes and the pride of life, dirty’s the windows of the soul. The dirtier our windows are the harder it is to see the “Light”.
The purpose of lent is to window clean!
Let us look at the top 3 struggles of sin to help us window clean during Lent.
(Mother Melania mostly gets her thoughts on these through The Ladder of Divine Ascent and St. John Cassian.)
What is Gluttony? It is an ungodly attitude towards food and comes in 3 forms:
- Eat too often and at inappropriate times.
- Eating too much.
- “Dainties” or pickiness. Getting upset because you don’t have the exactly right brand or flavor.
Gluttony is the base of all the other passions. If you can cut off this passion it will be far easier to cut off the others. “A bedrock passion.”
Opposite virtue: Self Control!
Examples in Scripture where others failed with this passion:
- Genesis 25: 27-34 Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of pottage. We too can miss our “birthright” by focusing on earthly food rather than heavenly food.
- Numbers 11 Israelites in the wilderness. They were never satisfied for long.
- The rich man and Lazarus
- The publican and the pharisee
Examples in scripture where people did well with fasting:
- King David in 1 Chronicles 11: 17-19
- 1 Kings 17: 8-16 The widow of Zeraphath.
What is avarice? It is desiring things more than we desire God, worshipping idols.
What forms does it have?
- Being overly occupied with the things that we have.
- Trying to get back things we gave away.
- Coveting what was never ours to begin with.
Opposite Virtue: Generosity!
Almsgiving must be more than just about money. Time is far more precious…so is patience.
Scriptural examples of not dealing with this very well:
- 1 Kings 21…Ahab and Naboth
- 2 Kings 5:20 Gahazi
- Acts 4: 32-5:11 Ananias and Zepheriah
Examples of Good:
- 1 Samuel 26: 1-25 David
- 1 Samuel 20 Jonathan. Mother Melania thinks that the story of Jonathan and David is one of the most beautiful stories. I need to read this.
- Shunamite woman & Elisha
- Widow and the 2 mites.
- Christ Himself!
What is pride? The beginning and end of all sin. The 1st sin.
Two kinds of pride: Carnal Pride and Spiritual Pride (the more we move along the ladder the easier it is to fall into pride).
Opposite virtue: Humility!
Before humility is meekness. Meekness is constrained power. Jesus is meekness. Meekness is the precursor to humility. If we can cultivate humility, all other passions can be conquered.
Humility is the key as to whether our fasting, almsgiving and prayer grow good things within us.
Remedy pride & cultivate humility. How?
- Submissiveness & obedience.
- Reading the lives of the saints.
- Everything we have is a gift from God…live this.
- Meditate on the death of Christ for our sins. Wednesday & Friday are dedicated to the Cross. All hymnography in the Church points to this. This is a good place to start. Bridegroom matins hymnography is a good place to start. “He was robed in the garment of mockery.”
- Remembering my sins.
Examples of pride in scripture:
- Herod the Great (in stark contrast to Jonathan)
- The Pharisee (of the publican and the pharisee)
Examples of Humility:
- Greatest of all is Christ. Phil. 2:5-11
- The publican.
- Canaanite woman. Matt. 15:21-28
- Philip Acts 8:26-40 Have a teachable spirit.
Mother Melania ended her talk by briefly answering this question: How do we pray?
- You never get to the point where you feel like you “nailed it”. If you do then you are stuck.
- We have the prayer of the church to help us.
- Start by RESOLVE!
- If you wait for inspiration to pray, you’ll wait forever.
- Have your most dedicated time of prayer at your best time of the day.
- You WILL get distracted. Go back. Begin again. Keep going!
- The point of prayer isn’t to get to the end of our prayers but to be in the presence of God.
- Pray the Jesus Prayer (Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.) throughout the day and even at services.
- When God catches your attention, stay there, value it. You don’t need to finish. You need to be with God.
- Bring God to your thoughts throughout the day (Pivot Prayers!)
- Offer up to God all that you do!
- Pray for people we are upset with. (“Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on _____ & through his/her prayers have mercy on me.”)
- It isn’t always going to “feel good”. When we are open with God we will see the ugly stuff inside ourselves. But there IS hope!
OH! This part on prayer was SO very encouraging to me!
One small tangent that she went off on in the middle of the day was crucial to me. It didn’t fit correctly above so I saved it for the end. I think it spawned from a question someone asked her.
“Gratitude is my cure all!”
We think our day has gone bad. “Everything went wrong today! It was horrible!” But really? Really think about what a day would be like when EVERYTHING does go wrong. First of all you wouldn’t have eyes to see. You would starve to death. You would freeze. You wouldn’t be able to do a single thing.
You need to keep thankful lists to look back on when you are feeling this way. Three lists to keep:
- A list of big deal things to think on. Like, Christ dying on the cross!
- Miracles. Beautiful people God has brought into our life.
- Simple things we never think of. Gravity. Or simply driving down the road and instead of thinking of all the bad drivers, thank God for all the drivers that are actually doing what they are supposed to be doing. Thank God for the trees and well, the other 99.9% of things that ARE going right!
Gratitude is a cure all!
This retreat was a blessing to me! It was a great way to begin thinking about the start of Great Lent and how I have things to work on. It helped me to set my path for the next 9 weeks and I feel hopeful.
My hope is in the Resurrection. My hope is in Christ. And I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. May I go into Great Lent with a humble, “teachable spirit” and may my focus remain on Him and becoming more like Him. Won’t you join me?