Lent is nearly upon us. Great Lent has in fact begun for Eastern Christians who keep a very strict fast. Traditional fasts in the West were historically also much more rigorous than many observe today. In fact, many of us are much stricter in our weight loss or physical fitness efforts than we are in our spiritual exercises. St John Chrysostom challenges us to take good advantage of these weeks given to us to strengthen both areas and see fasting - both physical and spiritual - as a the opportunity it truly is to gird ourselves up and start anew:
"Fasting is the change of every part of our life....
because the sacrifice of the fast is not the abstinence but the distancing from sins. Therefore, whoever limits the fast to the deprivation of food, he is the one who, in reality, abhors and ridicules the fast. Are you fasting? Show me your fast with your works. Which works? If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him! If you see a beautiful woman on the street, pass her by.
In other words, not only should the mouth fast, but the eyes and the legs and the arms and all the other parts of the body should fast as well. Let the hands fast, remaining clean from stealing and greediness. Let the legs fast, avoiding roads which lead to sinful sights. Let the eyes fast by not fixing themselves on beautiful faces and by not observing the beauty of others. You are not eating meat, are you? You should not eat debauchery with your eyes as well. Let your hearing also fast. The fast of hearing is not to accept bad talk against others and sly defamations. Let the mouth fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers?
For there exist, there really exist, ways which are even more important than abstinence from food which can open the gates which lead to God with boldness. He, therefore, who eats and cannot fast, let him display richer almsgiving, let him pray more, let him have a more intense desire to hear divine words. In this, our somatic illness is not a hindrance. Let him become reconciled with his enemies; let him distance from his soul every resentment." - St John Chrystostom
It is a huge spiritual reset button. Such a gift! No matter how you keep lent remember it is a very private matter between you and God. (Matthew 6:1) This essay about the counsel of St Philip Neri urges us to follow Gandalf's advice in Lord of the Rings to "keep it secret, keep it safe" so we don't lose the merit, or value, of our practices by exposing them to the eyes of the world.
May your lent be fruitful and peaceful.