“Lent is a time to renew wherever we are in that process I call the divine therapy. It’s a time to look at what our instinctual needs are, look at what the dynamics of our unconscious are.” –Thomas Keating
I’m scheduling this post to go up early, before Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, to give any readers who want to participate in Ash Wednesday/Lent fully but weren’t aware it was upon us (hey, you never know!) a heads-up. Mardi Gras will be celebrated by bringing doughnuts to my team at work, and an early Valentine’s Day dinner at home with Husband. Hope you all have a wonderful run-up to Ash Wednesday!
Lent. Where to even begin? Lent is my favorite liturgical season. It resonates. It’s powerful. The secular world feels it too—lapsed, or cafeteria, or wholly secular Christians go to Ash Wednesday services and give things up for Lent. Ash Wednesday is NOT a holy day of obligation, and yet masses are often standing room only. What is this phenomenon?
People who have never encountered Lent often think of it as a time of somber misery and self-sacrifice, and in some ways that’s true. It certainly can be. What they don’t understand, which is indeed a profound and resonant irony, is that we CRAVE this time of reckoning. I think one explanation for the overwhelming popularity of Ash Wednesday and Lent is that the human soul craves a memento mori in a world that bombards us with the lie that immortality is achievable and suffering is avoidable…that life is about looking and feeling good, so we should chase those things forever on a nihilistic hamster wheel.
The thing is…our souls know these messages are false, and like cleaning house after a raucous party, we crave the harsh soul-scrubbing and deeply personalized asceticism Lent offers us. It’s the antidote to the slow-acting poison of an “I’m ok, you’re ok,” culture, a materially driven culture, a nihilistic culture that leaves us, even subconsciously, cringing interiorly at its crass falsehoods.
There is nothing in the secular world that does this. No time or holiday or event that grabs our shoulders, stares into our eyes and says, “Life is hard. It’s full of suffering you can’t escape. You’re going to weaken, and die, and decay. And that’s ok. Your suffering isn’t for nothing. The arc of life isn’t a tragedy. You don’t need to be a slave to your body’s desires and cravings. You don’t need to be a slave to your heart’s desires and cravings. You can do the hard, good thing and in doing so, you’ll sanctify yourself and the world. Now go do it.” There is nothing in our culture that does this, because this message is inherently counter-cultural. To be told to lay down the transient material to free ourselves to choose the good– an objective, not subjective, good– that is counter-cultural.
I was so pumped for Lent last year. I had prepared very consciously, had a list of spiritual practices I was going to adopt, things to give up, things I was going to begin. Lent began on March 1st. On March 13th Grandma died.
It was such an interesting experience—having to put down the mantle of self-imposed discipline and symbolic mourning, and pick up the mantle of actual mourning. Actual death. Every single goal, every single plan, every single hope and idea went directly out the window. I ate ALL the sweets—cake, chocolate, doughnuts…I spent a fortune on eating sushi for dinner almost every night for literally weeks. I didn’t pray. I didn’t talk to God, or Grandma. I just sat in my house, first in a stunned shock and then in an agonized bereavement. At the time, I thought my Lent had been a total failure. Looking back, it was the most real, painful Lent I hope I ever experience. I had thought I knew what I needed to do to temper my soul, but God had other plans, and I was swept along by them as in a current, with no choice but to yield.
I didn’t want to make too many plans this year, but it’s always good to decide on concrete goals rather than general, wishy-washy ideas so that you have something measurable to hold yourself to. Many of my goals are going to be tucked away in my heart, where only God can know them, and likely I won’t even share them with Husband. Husband has these too…silent promises known only to him. These goals aren’t secret, rather, they are sacred…kept safe in quiet corners of our souls where they can germinate in this winter cold, and hopefully bear fruit by Easter.
I can tell you a bit about them, though: I always try to do the hard-and-fast traditional abstinence from meat (not just Fridays!), desserts, treats of various kinds, and expensive or indulgent meals. We don’t eat t a lot of meat, so I’m expanding this to include dairy for myself. I often begin new spiritual practices, or dedicate myself to old ones that have fallen away. Husband and I try to prioritize charitable giving in ways that are most feasible to us. Bad habits get tackled and extraneous demands on our attention are pruned. Not everyone’s sacrifices and penances look like this, and that’s ok. We do what’s calling us, what is placed on our hearts, and despite what it might look like from the outside, there isn’t a hierarchy of holiness determined by self-imposed suffering. It’s not about suffering– it’s about a quiet transformation.
A few final thoughts on Lent:
We love Lent the way we love having a sparkling clean house. Scrubbing the toilet isn’t fun, but the result is always worth it. To put a more nuanced point on it, Lent shows us that the process of scrubbing– the sacrifice, the painful, un-glamorous, tedious, hard part– is the part that does the most good. The clean toilet, or whatever metaphorical object you care to replace it with, is just a pleasant addition to the value you gain inwardly in doing the hard, good thing. In the end, you want to be a person to whom “keeping a clean house,” comes naturally and without constant struggle. Practice makes perfect!
Lent is a time for personal retreat from the things the world wants to inundate us with, distract us with. The world wants all of your spare time to be spent on Netflix, and Facebook, and Reddit, and Twitter, and bad food, and anxiety, and obsessions, and lies. Lent offers us a retreat from these things, because these things aren’t spiritually enriching, and they don’t define us. It is weird to say to my Facebook groups “I’m checking out for Lent, see you in six weeks!” but it feels so good. And if that’s too much retreat from any given thing, that’s ok. Sundays are mini-feasts and technically don’t “count,”so if you care to observe them traditionally by revisiting whatever it is you’ve put aside for six days a week, that’s fine! The one exception to this is if you are trying to break or build a specific habit, in which case Sunday indulgences could compromise the overall goal.
Despite all this talk about tempering ourselves during this time, Lent is a really profound time to think about the world, and to orient our perspective so that we no longer appear to be at the center of it. The three pillars of Lent are prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. At least two of these direct our attention to the world outside our own heads, outside our own experiences. All three do, in fact, but if you’re new to fasting I can tell you that you think about yourself A LOT while hungry. But even this type of self-focused thinking can help us to reflect on the world around us– how many people in the world feel hunger all the time, and how lucky am I that I only feel this way if I choose to?
St. Benedict warned his sixth century monks that during Lent, they shouldn’t be taking on anything that is truly burdensome or harsh. This isn’t about setting ourselves up for failure or pain. This is about reevaluating our place in this cosmos, our relationship to God, and what we need to do to bring about order from disorder.
Keep an eye out for my next post, “20 Thing To Do For Lent,” a short list of ideas for preparing your home and your heart for the upcoming season, as well as ideas for things to take on this year.
Whatever you choose this season, whatever you take on or give up, whatever changes you make, whatever resolutions sit nestled in your heart, may they all be graced with guidance, love and mercy. May you have a blessed Lent!
*Photo credit in this post goes to Senior Airman Jensen Stidham for his beautiful photo of a little girl receiving ashes at the Shaw Air Force Base, February 2015.