One of the hallmarks of my generation in the South is that we never grew up without a great deal of attention to God. Whether it was the absolute assurance in the sermons of preachers who could say with some precision who was going where when they died, or even with assurance describe heaven, or the far more mundane mutterings of public figures giving lip-service to the God in Whom we believed. I have mentioned before that I am grateful for the fact that in my childhood, memorizing Psalms in public school was considered normal.
What was missing, strangely, was God Himself. There was a mystical South, to be sure. Pentecostalism was thriving (in my childhood it was almost completely confined to Mill Villages), and you could hear stories of people jumping in and out of windows at Church and many other sorts of wild things that may never have happened.
What was missing was any sense of a quiet, deep knowledge of the Living God, garnered over a life-time of prayer and repentance. I’m sure it existed – but not anywhere you could notice. To read Flannery O’Connor is to engage in some level of self-recognition for many of us in my Southern generation. We love her writings, but wince at some passages that tell more of the truth than any of us would like to see. “Tell it not in Gath” (2 Samuel 1:20).
The discovery by some of the historic Church (whether Catholic or Anglican) was the discovery of a different world, with tales of saints and heroes that bore no resemblance to the experience we had known as children. I recall being in high school before I ever heard the phrase, “Giving up something for Lent.” Living in a household that was not of a single religious mind, I don’t remember ever giving up anything for Lent.
In seminary (Anglican) I once gave up anger for Lent. It’s the hardest fast I’ve ever kept.
What strikes me the most in my Orthodox life are the stories of many saints, living and departed, who (particularly in our modern world) came from atheism into Orthodoxy. In Russia, the more common term for a Christian is simply, “Believer.” And this is as it should be.
Our default position within modern America is some form of atheistic or agnostic materialism. On a bad day, we barely believe in God but remain utterly convinced of the power of the market and the engine of industry.
Lent comes to take on even greater importance in such a setting – for we are not only seeking to repent – we seek to believe. And Lent makes it clear that the two are not separate things but mutually interdependent. Without repentance, there can be no belief in the God Who Is. To know God – to actually know Him – repentance is indispensable. Only a broken and contrite heart can know God.
There are many things that break our hearts, and many others that bring us to the point of contrition. But often these very crushing blows drive us only deeper into ourselves and despair. Thus the need of Great Lent.
To be broken by grace and crushed by the hand of God is far kinder than the treatment we receive from the world. To take up the Church’s Way of Life during Lent, and to lean into it, will always put us on a path towards brokenness and contrition. But there is a world of difference between the brokenness and contrition that comes as the gift of grace and the brutality of the world’s humiliation.
St. Paul said, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). To fast and pray, to give alms and show mercy, for the sake of knowing God is to take up a cross of “godly grief” and the fruit it bears in our life is salvation itself. The grief of the world can be submitted to God and become a godly grief, at least in my experience I have found it so.
But whatever we do in Lent, we should be looking for God. There is no other purpose to our existence than fellowship with God and with His creation. We simply need to take up the journey that follows that path.
Of course, this journey is not peculiar to the South: it is simply new for many.
For Southerners, and others who may be fans of Flannery O’Connor, I recommend an article by my dear friend, Fr. Paul Yerger. I first heard it at an assembly in Dallas and find it good to reread now and again. It may be found here.