Each year we find ourselves on a journey during Lent. Traveling that long and arduous pilgrimage – focusing on others more than ourselves and realizing it’s much harder than it sounded.  After all, going to church at the end of a long day, multiple times during the week becomes weary very quickly as we realize we’re worn out and don’t have much left to give.  Giving up some of our favorite foods in order to save money to give to someone else more in need than ourselves is difficult.  I worked hard to attain these comforts and I’m not willing to give them up easily!  Going to confession is just downright embarrassing and that takes a lot of work to force myself to go.  Immediately, our own wants and desires make themselves known and we find ourselves either making excuses for why we didn’t go to church or have to push ourselves to show up.  In those moments, we realize it’s much easier to put ourselves first – even before God.  We struggle with this realization with differing levels of difficulty but as we attend the Paschal liturgy and listen to the powerful sermon of St. John Chrysostom, we are incredibly thankful for God’s abundant mercies upon us!!!

If there are devout and God-loving people here, let them enjoy this beautiful, radiant festival.  If there are prudent servants, enter joyously into the Lord’s joy.  Whoever may be spent from fasting, enjoy now your reward.  Whoever has toiled from the first hour, receive today your just settlement.  If any came after the third hour, celebrate gratefully.  If any of you arrived after the sixth, have no misgivings, you have lost nothing.  If some have been as late as the ninth, come forward, do not be at a loss.  If any of you have arrived only at the eleventh hour, do not be dismayed for being late.

The Master is gracious:  He accepts the last even as the first; He gives rest to those of the eleventh as well as to those who have labored from the first; He is lenient with the last while looking after the first; to the one He gives,  to the other He gives freely; He accepts the labors and welcomes the effort; honors the deed, but commends the intent.  So, all of you, enter into the joy of our Lord: first and second, share the bounty.  Rich and poor alike, celebrate together.  Sober or heedless, honor the day.  Those who fasted and those who did not, rejoice today.  The table is full, everyone fare sumptuously.  The calf is fatted; no one go away hungry.  Everyone, savor the banquet of faith; relish the riches of His goodness…

One of the greatest lessons I learned from my parents was simply to participate in the life of the Church.  We went to every evening service as a family during all of Lent and Holy Week.  As Holy Week approached, we had been on this great journey together for weeks and the end was near.  Even as a child, I remember being worn out by this point in Lent just as anyone would be traveling a great distance.  We participated in this journey by attending services, fasting, praying, giving alms, and going to Holy Confession individually as a family.  Holy Week was the climax of that great quest leading us to the most anticipated day of the entire year – Pascha!

As I aged, I made my own choices about Lent.  Some years I put little effort into fasting or found myself unable to go to the services since I lived over an hour away from the closest church.  It was in those years, that I found I had missed out on something special.  I had skipped almost the entire journey, taking the short cut to the end, and found new meaning in St. John Chrysostom’s sermon. Instead of being excited about the feast, I was thankful for God’s mercy upon me.  In one there was joy and in the other appreciation for not being shut out from the feast.  It was in those years, that I found strength and determination to not find myself there the following year.

One would think that our spiritual journeys would constantly be progressing as each year passes.  The truth is, it doesn’t happen that way.  I have to genuinely look at my situation each year.  Was I making excuses for my laziness or were my circumstances simply teaching me other lessons – patience, endurance, or determination to find an alternate path when the main path had been washed out for me.

The Lenten journey is hard every year – regardless of how many times you’ve traveled it or how strong you think you’ve become.  It’s that much harder when you’re not at your peak strength and life throws you curve balls.  I’ve found that having kids between the ages of 1 and 3 makes the journey exponentially harder.  Think about it.  Growing up, I just had to take care of myself during this journey.  As a mom, I’m guiding and carrying others.  I needed all of those previous years of learning the journey through the guidance of my parents in order to even attempt leading my own family.  I’ve built up some strength over the years, I know the road, some of this is second nature to me, and even though I find myself more tired on this journey than I did when I was younger – from fasting, from carrying my kids as they tire, from preparing us and sustaining us through the trip – the mileposts are familiar to me now and I see the end in site.

On the expedition, an infant is decently easy to carry since they’re so tiny (or at the very least they are easy to pass around to be carried by others as well) and they sleep a lot.  They don’t add that much extra work on this long journey.  A small child who is just discovering independence and how to communicate is an entirely different story.  They are massive balls of energy that you have to chase around to make sure they stay safe and on the path.  Then when they tire out, they are cranky and want to be carried.  They are not as tiny anymore and it takes a lot more effort to not only chase them throughout the route but then have to carry them once they tire out no matter how tired you are yourself.  It’s not until they are a bit older that the journey becomes less intense as a whole again.  As your kids mature, I’ve found they lend a helping hand when you find yourself struggling and weakening.  Several years ago, it had snowed about 8 inches and there was no way my back could handle shoveling the driveway in order to get the van out to go to an evening Lenten service.  The next thing I know, I see Niki outside shoveling the driveway so we could go!

Someone told me recently that they love my Illumination Learning website but there’s no way they could do all the things I do with my kids right now.  I don’t think they understand, I couldn’t do it either if I expected myself to do it all at once!  This has taken years to get to the point I am with my kids now and was only made possible by the strong foundation my parents laid for me.  I’m familiar with this journey – even though it NEVER gets easy.  I don’t have to stop and ask for directions.  I’m used to the food that’s available on this pilgrimage.  I’ve developed a certain amount of callouses over the years even though the paths and climb are always strenuous.

I can’t imagine trying to do ALL of this stuff at once from the very start!  When I do add new stuff, like this year, I only pick one new thing to tackle.  I wanted to learn more about the services during Holy Week.  We’ve been learning about the themes of each night, one new hymn for each of the different services, and the symbolism for each icon for each of the different services.  It was amazing last night how much more I got out of the service by just understanding the little bit we have been learning together as a family.

On Sunday, Chris whispered to me at the back of the church just after we lit our candle and went to venerate the Palm Sunday icon, “Mom!  That’s the icon we learned about!  There are the disciples on Jesus’ left and the Jews on his right!”  He’s my little visual learner, like myself, and learning the symbolism of the icons opens up a whole new world to him.  He’s much more attentive during church as he’s staring at all the icons on the ceiling and walls instead at everyone around us.  Zach told me disappointedly on the way to church last night, “The altar boys don’t follow along with their books at this church.  I miss that.”  He’s my auditory-sequential learner who does better with written word over visual pictures.  But…he also really loves music so he gets excited when he hears the new hymn in church that we learned at home and can sing along with the chanters.  He is refocused on the service in those moments also in his own way.  I even heard from Niki yesterday about church services.  I got a text from her telling me she forgot to pack her Holy Week book and she was bummed!

I think some who are new to this journey expect themselves to simply join in with everyone else.  I can’t imagine being able to do that!  Talk about hard!  Do you think my 20 y.0. would be telling me she was upset because she didn’t bring her Holy Week book with her when she moved simply because she’s Orthodox?  No.  This had to be important to her.  This had to be a part of her life for years prior. My kids didn’t start out participating in the way in which they do today.  They started out by only watching.  They watched us pray.  They went to the services with us and watched (or slept).  They didn’t fast.  They didn’t do anything other than walk with us.  That was quite a bit to take in on it’s own. It wasn’t until later that the rest of it followed let alone adding things like a Holy Week study, or dyeing eggs, or Pascha Passports, or anything else.  Take our Family Forgiveness Night tradition – it only happened because we were not able to attend Forgiveness Sunday vespers!  I was most definitely not trying to figure out how I could do “extra stuff”.  I was simply trying to find an alternate path around “the massive tree that fell in our path”.  Nothing more than that.

These journeys change from year to year and the paths are not always the same.  Sometimes a massive tree falls and blocks the road.  Do we turn back and give up or do we find a way around it? These are choices we make.   It’s going to be different for everyone depending on the circumstances of that year along with our own personal strength, due to illness or stress, that year as well.  It is definitely a bummer when we don’t finish something to the extent that we had hoped or expected from ourselves but do we choose to let it defeat us or motivate us to try harder next year?