Eastern Orthodox Christians prepare for Lent

For some, a 40-day journey has just begun. The season of Lent, the time leading up to Easter, is here. Though the Roman Catholic’s abstaining from meat on Fridays and forgoing a favorite food or pastime during the Lenten season is relatively well known, many are not aware of Eastern Orthodoxy’s different practices.

According to a study by Alexei Krindatch, a sociologist of religion, there are 797,600 Orthodox Christians living and worshiping in the U.S. This year, both Catholic and Orthodox Lent fall on the same days. This is not always the case, as the two churches use different liturgical calendars.

Orthodox Lenten practices, like the Catholic counterpart, include fasting. Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, oil and alcohol during the 40-day fast. The University of Missouri’s Campus Dining Services work hard to accommodate any and all religious eating preferences, said Eric Cartwright, Executive Chef. During Passover they designate a location to provide meals made using sterile, single serving dishes. During Ramadan they provide ready to heat meals for students to take home to their residence halls to reheat after sunset. Throughout the year, Campus Dining Services try to provide lean whitefish on Fridays for all Christians who are fasting.

Freshman psychology major at the University of Missouri, Matthew Monos, has been partaking in the yearly fast since his sophomore year in high school. For some, balancing college and religion can be difficult. For Monos, attending church services and daily prayer, important aspects of Orthodoxy and Lenten season, are not too much of a challenge, but fasting occasionally is.

“Fasting … is more difficult,” Monos said. “During the Lenten period before Christmas sometimes I just skipped lunch because finding food can be a hassle. It can be difficult when you go places with friends, but I just find something.”

Prayer though, Monos said, comes easily. He prays on the way to class, before tests, when he’s waiting for the teacher to start their lecture. Any time he’s free is a chance to pray. He is careful not to use his busy college schedule as an excuse to skimp on his religious responsibilities. Prayer, fasting and attending services should be a priority, he said.

“The point of church attendance isn’t to go when it’s convenient to your school schedule,” Monos said. “In other words, you fit your life into God, you don’t fit God into your arbitrary schedule.”

This is especially true over Lent, said junior political science major, John Tsikalas, when the Church calls all members to reassess their spiritual wellbeing.

“Lent, for Orthodox Christians, is not simply about giving something up,” Tsikalas said. “It’s about reorienting ourselves toward God in all aspects of our life. The mindset of examining ourselves and how we need to improve in our spiritual lives is not stressed, from my experience, in other traditions.”

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website, provides words from Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware, explaining the sense of joy that comes on Easter (or as Orthodox Christians refer to it, Pascha) can only be felt after a time of preparation. They state, “Without this waiting, without this expectant preparation, the deeper meaning of the Easter celebration will be lost.”

Katharine Hodges, special events coordinator in the school of journalism at the University of Missouri, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy with her husband in 2009. In society today, she said, occasionally people go overboard on holidays early. By the time Christmas or Easter roll around, “you’re all Christmas-ed out.” Eastern Orthodox practices of fasting and prayer ensure that preparation is important, and when the holiday itself does come – it is even sweeter, Hodges said.

“For me, Lent brings me back to faith and prayerfulness in general,” Hodges said. “There is so much that pulls you away from it … work, your kids and all the stresses of life. But, Lent is that time that the Church pulls you back to focus and prepare before Pascha. There is so much time that you spend intentionally preparing that it helps you re-center yourself.”

All the preparation Orthodox Christians do during the Lenten season, and the beauty of the practices, set the religion apart, said Monos.

“One thing that makes Orthodoxy special is that the Orthodox Church is viewed as a ‘hospital’ seeking to heal the wounds of the soul,” Monos said. “Our clergy therefore are a kind of spiritual therapist. … Lent is the perfect time to see how the Church is a hospital. Lent is a time that the Church offers services, Confession, unction and a variety of other services that allow us to be healed. … Lent for the Orthodox however offers a chance to begin a healing process, not for 40 days, but for your entire life.”

Maria Kalaitzandonakes

About the Author Maria

I’m a CoMo native with a mile-long last name. I’m a sucker for wool socks, classic Coca Cola and afternoon naps. If I had a pet, I’d dub it Pigwidgeon, or maybe Alastor. I’ve stood right in between Asia and Europe, eaten my weight in lamb meat and walked the Great Wall. I’m fluent in Greek and a little wobbly in Spanish. I’ve broken my arm and lost five pairs of glasses. And I say both with an L, as in boLth, like a true Missourian. Before I became a tiger, I was a bruin, at Columbia’s very own Rock Bridge High School. There I got my start in agriculture and journalism. I ran the student newspaper and magazine, learning that I had a love for storytelling. CAFNR is where I call home right now, as an Agricultural Economics and Science and Agricultural Journalism double-major student. Someday I may use this degree for a career in agricultural public policy or foreign agricultural services. But for now, I’m just a freshman with some pretty blurry pipe dreams.