The Great Fast begins on February 16th with Clean Monday (note: that's not Ash Wednesday), and we're already well into Pre-Lent.

Are you ready?

I am usually not ready. I've never been a big fan of Great Lent, what with all the fasting and the almsgiving.  The prayer part is nice, but that and all the other extra stuff that happens in our rite during this season doesn't really fit into my schedule. Everything about Great Lent generally feels very inconvenient to me and not much more. It’s the one liturgical season I tend to dread.

(You might think I'm joking there for effect. I'm not).

But last year, I discovered a book that changed my feelings completely on Great Lent. It's called Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, and you might remember me recommending it as a sort of side note in one article a while back. I decided that this year, it deserves its own piece.

Image copyright Brittany Balke, all rights reserved Pardon the home-made quality of this image. It's a long story. Image copyright Brittany Balke, all rights reserved

Great Lent is written by Orthodox priest Father Alexander Schmemann. In this book, he covers everything from Pre-Lent to Lazarus Saturday with incredible depth, clarity, and accuracy. He explains the vast riches within our Lenten traditions, including the traditions of pre-sanctified Divine Liturgies and All Souls Saturdays.

It is because of this book that I have begun to understand how incredibly worthwhile all the "inconveniences" of Great Lent really are. Since I've bought and read this book, I have actually looked forward to the Great Fast rather than dreading it.

Even if you're the kind of person who loves Great Lent and already looks forward to it every year (you traddy), your love for the season will only grow in reading Father Schmemann's book. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that every Byzantine Catholic needs this book, and I 100% mean the word "need."

While you’re waiting on the delivery, Father Schmemann’s reflection for this Sunday (Cheesefare/Forgiveness Sunday) from the book is available here. This is one of my favorite quotes from that reflection:

Listen to the unique melody of this verse [from the Great Prokeimenon]-- to this cry that suddenly fills the church: ‘...for I am afflicted!’-- and you will understand this starting point of Lent: the mysterious mixture of despair and hope, of darkness and light. All preparation has now come to an end. I stand before God, before the glory and the beauty of His Kingdom. I realize that I belong to it, that I have no other home, no other joy, no other goal; I also realize that I am exiled from it into the darkness and sadness of sin, ‘for I am afflicted!’ And finally, I realize that only God can help in that affliction, that only He can ‘attend to my soul.’ Repentance is, above everything else, a desperate call for that divine help.

 If you end up getting and reading this book, or if you’ve already read it, please feel free to share any of your thoughts on it in the comments.

In the meantime, I pray you have a beautifully and fruitfully inconvenient beginning to your Great Lent.

An important side note: Father Schmemann is very critical in a few places in Great Lent of certain Roman Catholic practices and traditions. (Remember, he is an Orthodox priest and not an Eastern Catholic priest). His critiques constitute a miniscule portion of the book, but I wouldn’t want you to be surprised by their presence. While I find his remarks extremely helpful for differentiating between Eastern and Western Christian practices and for better understanding our Orthodox brothers, I do not think it is healthy or right for those of us in union with Rome to adopt an attitude that sees their beliefs and practices as invalid. We can and should acknowledge the validity of the West’s traditions while maintaining our own uniquely Eastern traditions.

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Copyright 2015, Brittany Balke

Photography: Great Lent, Brittany Balke, 4 Feb 2015.