Lent is the Red Pill, the escape from the "Matrix of Self"
For Orthodox Christians, Lent isn't a buffet line of choices where we get to decide what "thing" we will give up. Rather the Lenten Fast is prescribed, and while most modern expressions of Christianity have abandoned or profoundly modified the Fast, in the Orthodox custom it remains in keeping with the oldest traditions. It involves abstaining generally from all meat, dairy products, olive oil, and wine. However the time of Lent isn't JUST about food, it is also focused very intensely on Prayer and Almsgiving. All of which is ultimately intended to get our minds off of ourselves - that may seem simple, but it isn't.
Of course, it is no grand revelation or profound insight to claim that we spend most of our lives wholly focused on ourselves. Most of us all know that we do, but the problem here isn't as straightforward as it may seem. Here is the deeper issue (at least as I see it in my life): we are also wholly blind to ourselves. What we perceive isn't necessarily real at all, instead we have invented a sort of false reality like the Matrix in which we operate and if that weren't bad enough, our culture and society is totally in on the deception. I think we tend to look at the world around us, necessarily (or so it seems) assume that our senses are perceiving what is real, but only after we've run it through the interpretive center of our noggin which is, in my case at least, an untrustworthy and profoundly biased source. So in other words, we as individuals are the sole reference for what is real - is it any wonder we have developed beliefs in such things which are "true for you" and not so for me, along with other relativistic nonsense. But before we absolutists became too cocky, the fact (I think) remains that most of our construed absolutes are equally a part of the Matrix or our collective self-deception and in that context, the relativists are often more right than absolutists would like to admit. Now I say all this as a scientist who by the very nature of my job must believe in absolute truth and our ability to discern it to some degree, and so I should note that the analogy of the Matrix does break down at some point. Clearly everything around us (such as these computers we are using) is real, as is the rest of the world presently surrounding us. However, HOW we perceive and interact with that world is where the "Matrix of Self" obscures things for us. We are in a constant state of collecting data and interpreting it and then deciding how to process and respond to it. That entire mechanism is flawed and for the most part we do not care. On the contrary we reinforce, often quite unintentionally, the many flaws that uphold the Matrix.
A simple illustration of the role that the "Matrix of Self" plays in our lives is to consider death. Consider how we fail to consider it! We avoid it, we shun it, we hide it and we don't like to talk about it. Indeed we often live our lives as if it in fact doesn't even exist! And we in the modern world, even when faced with it, sanitize it, sterilize it and keep it at a distance....desperate to avoid this invasion of reality and return to the great deception of the "Matrix of Self."
Have you ever felt this strange sensation that reality is escaping you - I like to take a cue from the movie and call it a glitch in the Matrix, whereas more likely it is God's Grace peaking in on my little facade. Let me try and explain: For brief moments I think or feel that I can see past myself and can even see myself as I OUGHT to be, but am not. It sometimes feels like those frustrating dreams in which you keep trying to accomplish some task and yet no matter how much progress you think you are making, you suddenly realize that you are making none whatsoever! Or another way I envision it: reality becomes present just to the extent that I can perceive its existence from time to time, but its only for a fleeting second or two before I am yanked back away from it - or more to the point I yank myself away from it. Well then, what do I mean by reality? I guess the best way I might describe it is to suggest that reality is a state of being which exists beyond myself. It transcends me and allows me to see with a degree of what could be called pure objectivity....well...not quite....more specifically and simply: purity, no longer being obscured by the "Matrix of Self." Don't kid yourselves, this is no easy task. One will often hear talk in Orthodox circles (and for certain amongst the writings of the Fathers) about the nous - sometimes described as that part of us which is able to relate to or connect with God. It is a Greek word which is often translated as "mind" or "heart" but not without debate. While I will avoid trying to define it precisely, I will say that I do believe the Beatitude which states "the pure in heart...shall see God." (St. Matthew 5:8) is related to it. And so in that context, one might refer to the nous as being equivalent to a purified heart and the means by which we can find reality.
Now, the surest way to send these fleeting moments of reality into oblivion, is to turn on the TV, radio, or internet and simply float away amidst the shallow muck of our collective deception. For it is here where we are most easily able to avoid the most important issue of our lives (the purity of our hearts) and focus on innumerable issues that will not shake us free from the "Matrix of Self". Sadly some of these things might be very good, important, and praiseworthy: maybe it's Facebook posts on some atrocity in the world or some political issue you feel strongly about. In this context, from the comfort of our lounge chairs we can "like" such posts, engage in heated debate about them, and walk away having gained NO greater sense of reality and usually quite the opposite: only the upholding of the facade. The more mundane things are obvious: who won the best actor Oscar and how upset are we that so and so didn't? What did Ellen DeGeneres wear when she opened the ceremony? On and on it goes...step back and read your Facebook feed, or look at the news streams, or consider what you watch on TV: what is the real value of any of this to your REAL life, to the purity of your heart? It seems colossally important to our lives in the "Matrix of Self", but none of it will get us any closer to reality. 99% of what we listen to, read, watch, or do is probably ultimately just distracting us and making us feel comfortable, content, and happy, which ironically might very likely be the key to our ultimate destruction. For some of us, pop culture and those things that are "trending" online (maybe a funny cat video, or "fail" videos, or the latest nearly pornographic music video) are sufficient to keep us trapped in the deception. Consider even further: maybe food is enough to keep us comfortable and this is not just a quantity issue (remember the gentlemen in the movie who longed to go back into the Matrix to escape the pain of reality and as he spoke about why he dreamed outloud of eating a delicious simulated steak), or maybe our hobbies keep us entertained and comfortably numb. Maybe it's video games or movies or _______. What thing in YOUR life do you go to, like a drug, in order to remain comfortable and to avoid confronting the reality of self? What keeps you trapped in the "Matrix of Self?" I have heard that the surest way to see a person grow irritable is to remove from them all electronics and place them in a room utterly free of distractions and simply ask them to sit in silence for 10 minutes. Arguably it would be the longest 10 minutes of most people's lives because the fact is that we YEARN for distraction so as to avoid the reality of self. We are inclined to want to stay in the Matrix of self-deception. And who can argue with the fact that we live in an age that is overflowing with distractions. Every time we see people's faces glued to their phones, do we not consider that they are being distracted from reality? Not just the reality of a spouse or child trying to gain their attention (no less problematic and a serious warning to us), but that deeper reality that we are talking about here!
Now, please, don't think I'm suggesting any of these things that can distract us are inherently bad. Rather I'm suggesting there is a massive influx of things hitting our senses, all of which have the potential to reinforce the "Matrix of Self" - and render us profoundly comfortable...stagnant. As I stop and look at my life, sometimes I feel a profound yearning to break away from all the nonsense that is keeping me imprisoned in my Matrix and I can see all these things keeping me there...conveniently distracted and appealing to all my various passions. I sense for brief moments some invisible barrier that is paper thin and yet no less keeping me imprisoned in the Matrix of Self...I want to take the red pill and break through to other side. Unfortunately, as with much in life, there is no simple pill to take to solve all of our problems.
The process by which we "take the red pill" is three fold in the Orthodox Tradition: purification, illumination, and theosis. This is nothing less than salvation. It is a pathway available to us which would not otherwise be so were it not for the saving work of Christ...but it is just that: a pathway and not a judicial proclamation of innocence despite guilt. It is instead a real and ontological change that must occur.
Lent is, in this way, the red pill. A prescription offered to us by over 2000 years of collective holy wisdom as a tried and true means to help us escape the "Matrix of Self". Alas, it is not as simple as taking a pill and going back to YouTube to watch videos expecting you'll magically be purified and enlightened. No, the Lenten prescription is: fasting (the belly and tongue's yearning for it is the very foundation of our passions), prayer (accomplishes quite the opposite of those things which make us comfortable in the Matrix...and the odds are our local Orthodox Churches provide seemingly unlimited opportunities), and Almsigiving (takes from ourselves and recognizes the other...it tears down the very fabirc of the "Matrix of Self").
The Canon of St. Andrew is typically served during the first week of Lent, and it was the Kontakion in this service which got me thinking about this idea.
My soul, my soul, arise! Why are you sleeping? The end is drawing
near, and you will be confounded. Awake, then, and be watchful, that
Christ our God may spare you, Who is everywhere present and fills all
One of the most overt effects of the "Matrix of Self" is that we completely lose the ability to discern the reality that He is in fact "everywhere present and fills all things." Knowing this and sensing this reality is a sure sign that we are tearing through the veil that hinders us.
...offered by Dn. Unknown, a sinner at 8:44 AM [+]