Have you ever really wanted something? I mean to really want it! Did your desire for it transcend everything else in your life? I have wanted so many things, so many times. But one thing sticks out in my memory. I think I was about 11 – and all I wanted for my birthday was a bow and arrow set. I mean, I really wanted it. I pestered my parents until I was blue in the face – but my birthday came and went and no bow and arrow. I was crushed, confused, and greatly disappointed. I have no idea why I didn’t get it – it seemed like everyone else got what they wanted! (I’m pretty sure my desire was not really about the bow and arrow!)

To desire something deeply makes one vulnerable. It has the power to expose us and the power to ruin us. But God made us for desire! He made us to direct the whole of our hearts in desire to the good He has for us. When desire is directed toward the thing we were made for – it moves us, it transforms us. It is like being shot out of a cannon! The desire for a life with God is the thing we were made for. And our God-driven desires picture for us the gift He has for us during this season of Lent.

I was not aware of this before my time preparing for Lent last year, but I discovered that the Orthodox Church spends five weeks before the first day of Lent in preparing for it! Can you imagine spending five weeks preparing for the preparation of Easter? As I continue my thoughts about desire, I need to say just how indebted I am to Father Alexander Schmemann for his great book: “Great Lent: the Journey to Pascha”.

There are five feasts in the weeks before Lent begins, and they all center around godly desire. Each week stresses a particular desire which together displays a picture of repentance.  It’s beautiful and I want to somehow bring us into an experience of each desire as a facet of this wonderful jewel of repentance.

The first feast centers on the story of Zaccheaus from Luke 19:2-8. Zacchaeus had such a desire to meet Jesus, and yet there was no way to get close to Jesus because of his limitations (he was short… – like some of the rest of us).  I love what Schmemann says about this:

…ours is to desire that which is deepest and truest in ourselves, to acknowledge the thirst and hunger for the Absolute which is in us whether we know it or not, and which, when we deviate from it and turn our desires away, makes us indeed a “useless passion.” And if we desire deeply enough, strongly enough, Christ will respond.

Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, p. 16

The first desire reveals a deep hunger for God and His righteousness. This is the virtue of godly desire.

The second feast tells the story of the tax-collector and the Pharisee, from Luke 18: 10-14. We know how that story goes. The Pharisee comes to the temple full of presumption (and full of himself). In his “prayers” to God he says – “I am so glad I am not like that guy over there!” The tax collector comes to the temple, acutely aware of his deep need for forgiveness and simply cries out “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

 “The lenten season begins then by a quest, a prayer for humility which is the beginning of true repentance. For repentance, above everything else, is a return to the genuine order of things. It is, therefore, rooted in humility and humility – the divine and beautiful humility – is its fruit and its seed”

Great Lent, p. 18.

This desire is for: A return to the right order of things – This is the virtue of humility – God is God and we are not!

The third feast tells the story of The Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32; a familiar story, where the second son leaves his home to make his way in the world. He squanders all he had and has given his heart (and his desires) to things that cannot last, unlovely cravings and sins. He “repents” and turns back toward home, not expecting grace or kindness. He is totally sickened by his wastefulness and sin.

To truly repent means that we realize just how far we are from home. In our wanderings “something pure and precious and beautiful has been hopelessly broken in the very texture of my existence” … and through our confession, through our longings – we turn our faces home – and there the Father not only meets us at the door, He runs to greet us. He says – “Oh how I have longed for this day – My joy is overflowing…” This reveals Lent itself as pilgrimage and repentance as return. We see that the real prodigal in this story is the Father – generous and lavish in His love for us!

“It is easy indeed to confess that I have not fasted on prescribed days, or missed my prayers, or become angry.  It is quite a different thing to realize suddenly that I have defiled and lost my spiritual beauty, that I am far away from my real home, my real life, and that something precious and pure and beautiful has been hopelessly broken in the very texture of my existence. Yet this, and only this, is repentance, and therefore it is also a deep desire to return, to go back, to recover that lost home”

Great Lent: p. 21-22

This is a deep desire to return to God and is the virtue of contrition, godly sorrow over our sinfulness.

The fourth feast is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of preparation. The story commemorating this is the Last Judgment, from Matthew 25:31-46. It marks Christ’s words to those there on the Last Judgment. The scripture says that when Christ comes in glory and sits on his throne he will say: “For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked, and you clothed me, I was sick, and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then they asked Him, “when did we do this”? His response? – “when you did it to the least of these!”

Christian love is the “possible impossibility” to see Christ in another man, whoever he is, and whom God, in his eternal and mysterious plan, has decided to introduce into my life, be it only for a few minutes, not as an occasion for a “good deed” or an exercise in philanthropy, but as the beginning of an eternal companionship in God himself.

Great Lent, p. 23.

This form of repentance brings a deepening love for “the other– and is the virtue of love. It gives us the grace to see and care for the needs of others.

The final feast is celebrated on the last Sunday before Lent and the story is from Matthew 6:14-21, with Christ’s commands to forgive those who have sinned against us. He says that our own forgiveness is at risk when we refuse to forgive our enemies. Schmemann says, “The triumph of sin, the main sign of its rule over the world, is division, opposition, separation, hatred. Therefore, the first break through this fortress of sin is forgiveness”. – a return to unity, peace, brotherhood” (GL:27).

This desire moves us to “lay down our arms” – and is the virtue of forgiveness – as we confess and receive, we are more naturally open to forgiving others…but the warning is clear – forgive that you may be forgiven.

This picture of repentance then centers on these five desires or virtues: hunger for God, humility, contrition, love and forgiveness.

One way we can keep faith with our baptisms is to seek out spiritual practices that correspond to these desires. I will write more on that later, but there is one practice that I have felt called to in regard to humility and that is the practice of silence. This has not gone well so far (insert laughing emoji here) – if my goal has actually been success in the practice! But this decision, this practice has revealed how much ugly pride there is in my heart and how much disdain for others I have. I have been confronted with my need to feel superior – and one way this is manifested is that I roll my eyes a lot (sometimes externally, often internally) when I think what someone has done or said is beneath me – my superior intellect or even my spiritual prowess. “Ouch! Dr. Marvin, you can help me!” (cue the first scene of What About Bob).

That’s enough for now – Let me leave you with this incredible word from John Shea on repentance:

“The more deeply one enters into the experience of the sacred the more one is aware of one’s own personal evil and the destructive forces in society. The fact that one is alive to what is possible for humankind sharpens one’s sense that we are fallen people. The awareness of sin is the inevitable consequence of having met grace… This grace-judgment dynamic reveals that the center of Christian life is repentance. This does not mean that the distinguishing mark of the Christian is breast-beating. Feeling sorry, acknowledging guilt, and prolonging regret may be components of the human condition, but they are not what Jesus means by repentance. Repentance is the response to grace that overcomes the past and opens out to a new future. Repentance distinguishes Christian life as one of struggle and conversion and pervades it, not with remorse, but with hope. The message of Jesus is not “Repent,” but “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near.”