Ash Wednesday, Great Lent

Today is Ash Wednesday, the Catholic holy day that begins the penitential season of Lent. This year I will not be celebrating as a Catholic.

Last year on September 1st Kassi and I, after a long season of spiritual apathy and suffering, took our first steps into the Russian Orthodox Church. There were private reasons, of course. Personal reasons that are always at the core of any conversion; but also open reasons. We did not take the step lightly.

It was important to me that we had the right motives; that we were not running from a church with which we had become disillusioned, but rather stepping away from it for the sake of our souls. The open, and maybe less important, reasons had to do with Pope Francis, the first Vatican Council, and a growing unease with some of the specific doctrines of the Catholic Church that never quite settled with us. Maybe one of these days I will discuss some of those things here.

(I am using “we”, because although I initiated the decision to leave, it is very much a journey we undertook together. But we each had our individual and unique reasons for doing so.)

Perhaps more importantly for me there was a growing dissatisfaction — a disappointment with the religious life as lived and experienced by Catholics in the modern age. Since the Middle Ages, really. I’m being vague, but it’s a complicated thing and most would not begin to understand unless they were familiar with Catholic culture and participated in church life. But it seems that at some point long ago the church took a wrong turn, and the distortion of religious life is manifested in the problems of the church today. And there are deep and serious problems.

Because another factor, which in reflection I believe should have been more significant in our decision, was a mounting disgust, and even horror, at the extent to which the church hierarchy has been infiltrated and subverted by literal agents of the devil. We are only beginning, I believe, to see the full picture of the damage that has been done to people’s lives and souls, and we may never see the totality of it. God help those involved in fighting and exposing these things. But could such sickness have had such a comfortable home in the church over hundreds of years if there weren’t a fundamental problem with its spiritual life? This question should not be dismissed so easily as some do. “By their fruits ye shall know them” said the Lord. Whose fruits are these? Who sits on the throne in the Vatican?

When confronted with things that challenge our perceptions and disturb our complacency, it is sometimes best to ponder them subconsciously over a long period of time.

Which, in fact, is what we did.

So by the time we were ready to make a move we felt sure of our decision.

This Lent will be the first I experience as an Orthodox Christian.

Russians generally follow the “old calendar”, so for us Lent begins this Monday. Pure Monday, they call it. I am going to attempt to stick to the strict fast for the duration, which is basically a vegan diet minus olive oil. And no hard liquor. I have never done such a thing before. This week is called Cheesefare, since we’ve already given up meat (last week was Meatfare), and are now working down our stock of dairy products according to the old customs.

I anticipated it being a real struggle, but as I’m set to begin I find myself not concerned about the “diet” aspect at all, but about other things.

The beginning of Lent in the Orthodox tradition is marked by a special ceremony of forgiveness. You ask forgiveness, formally, of all those you have offended in any way over the past year, or really over your whole life. I know I have hurt many people in my life. I have done things maliciously to hurt people, and I’ve done things passively, through neglect or indifference. And I’ve done many things through my own stupidity, sin, or in ways I simply could not avoid. Many people, including and especially people close to me.

How often do you think about that? I think about it and live with it all the time. Does it make me a better person? I wonder.

If you’re reading this, and you know me, and I’ve hurt you, I hope you’ll forgive me.

Whether Lent is beginning for you today, or Monday, or always or never, I hope you’re all on a journey to a better place. Like Robert Plant once said, there’s still time to change the road you’re on…

Have a Great Lent.