We have seen that Lent is not all about us, it is meant to be a time in which we concentrate on God in prayer and service. We have also seen that we are not as strong as we think we are and must begin and end our observance of this season by seeking the grace of God even to be able to find the desire to fast and pray in accordance with God’s will.
The third secret I would like to suggest is that we must take things slower than we would like. I mean that the experience of fasting is as much a matter of continuing practice and learning as anything else in our human condition. Someone might have an ambition to be an Olympic athlete, but they will not be instructed to begin their training with the same intensity that they might achieve after many years of hard work and effort.
If I was able to train with an Olympic 1500 metre medallist I could probably use all of my energy and keep up with him for 50 meters. After that I would be exhausted and would have to collapse at the side of the track. I could certainly complete the 1500 metres, but instead I would have to run much more slowly and with an awareness of my very poor level of fitness. What is more worthwhile? To act as if I was an Olympic athlete and fail entirely to make any lasting progress? Or to run at my own pace but finish the course?
The Scriptures teach us that it is always better to finish the race. If we use up all our energy because we pridefully think that everything we do can be accomplished in our own strength then we will fail to keep the fast, and will fail to honour God.
Those who are fortunate to be under the guidance of their priest or father of confession should certainly follow his advice. But for those who find themselves exploring Orthodoxy, or not presently in such a useful and fruitful relationship it is wise to bear this third secret for success in mind.
What does it mean in practice? It surely requires us to patiently build those habits of practice which come from participating in this spiritual programme at an appropriate level of intensity. Those enquirers who are not yet baptised and chrismated would be wise to adopt only a rule of avoiding all meat. Of course this does not mean that vegan food cannot be enjoyed, but the appropriate rule should be simply to abstain from meat.
Those newly practicing fasting might do well to choose either i. to avoid meat and skip breakfast or lunch so as to have some experience of being hungry, or ii. to avoid meat and fish and dairy while still eating through the day. These are exercises enough for the beginner. Those who have practiced this on several occasions during the seasons of fasting and have made them habitual will probably be in contact with priests who can give more advanced and tailored advice.
But what we should certainly avoid is the sprint start leading to complete failure. We are not, usually, monastics with decades of experience. And so we should not pridefully imagine that the effects of grace and spiritual habit which has cost them so much can be immediately ours without any such effort.
Let me encourage you to do what you can complete this Lent, especially if you are a beginner. Changing our diet and eating less are more than enough to seek God’s grace to accomplish as a habit. We need to gain such habits before we consider increasing the fasting restrictions and should seek advice when we have gained such a habit in any case.
Take things slower that you might like and complete what you start.