“What are you doing for Lent this year?” my pastor queried the few dozen of us who turned out for the earliest service on the morning of Ash Wednesday before the start of another typical work day. It was a rhetorical question. He promptly continued, “If you’re like me, perhaps people asking you that a lot. The answer I give is… ‘Not very much!’” My ears perked, and I leaned slightly forward on the hard, wooden pew. “We don’t do anything,” he emphasized. “It is God who does the work, when we return to that still, quiet place in our hearts.” His message was one of simplicity, surrender, and trust. In under five minutes, he reminded me that my weaknesses and imperfections were inherently human. If I wasn’t a sinner, then I wouldn’t need a savior. Though the standard of avoiding all evils and performing every possible good was set forth for me, I was realistically called to do my best, to quickly admit my faults and my mistakes, and to leave the rest to Him. It was probably the message that I most needed to hear.
In the days before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Christian Lenten season, I didn’t give much serious consideration to the changes that might be helpful in my life. On Tuesday evening, I was journaling about the busyness of my schedule and my longing for a more peaceful, less demanding existence. “I already know that I am good at self-denial,” I wrote. “I know very well how to punish and restrict myself.” I chewed slightly on the inside of my cheek, deep in thought. “Is self-flagellation really what Lent is about?” I wondered.
As a person in recovery from an eating disorder, my medical history precludes me from the requirement to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. If the purpose of Lent is to refocus on what matters the most, then refraining from this hyper-attention to food is actually therapeutic in my particular case. Instead, I find it helpful to reduce other less-than-healthy attachments. Last year, fasting from television provided me with more time for quiet reflection and contemplative meditation. Unplugging the TV eliminated a portion of the daily background noise, reduced my distractions, and minimized my exposure to those overt and subtle cultural messages appearing in entertainment, news, and advertising, with their negative conscious and subconscious effects. Yet, when Lent ended, all the shows that I missed were waiting for me on my DVR, and whatever gains I made in the cultivation of stillness slipped away. With the arrival of another intentional season of austerity, I welcomed the opportunity to abstain from television again and optimistically looked forward to growing more comfortable with both the quiet itself and all the difficult thoughts and emotions residing just under the surface of my occupied mind.
Thus decided, I confronted a confusing tangle of additional questions about the optimal Lenten practice. Should I also give up listening to Podcasts? At times, those could be a distraction, and I often used them to drown out the thoughts that sprang from fatigue when I was feeling overwhelmed. Someone raised the idea of fasting from sleep. Fortunately, I quickly dismissed this exercise as counter-productive to my own mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Why would I intentionally adopt a habit that would make it more difficult for me to make wise-minded decisions and to treat other people with compassion? “On the contrary,” I thought, “if I want to be a better person, I ought to commit to getting regular sleep!” Perhaps, I would benefit from letting go of all the things left unfinished at the end of the day in order to prioritize sleep. In that way, I would be forced to accept my own limitations, and I would (hopefully) increase in balance of mind, body, and spirit.
With simplicity in mind, I concluded that breaking up with my TV was the best place to start, and I resolved to dedicate my energy to prayerful reflection and contemplation. I further decided that there was something to the idea of caring for my physical needs in order to reduce my reactivity and impulsivity as I carried on through each day. Being honest with myself, I admitted that I was often so busy or preoccupied that I ignored or suppressed my bodily needs until the signals they triggered in my brain clanged so loudly that I absolutely couldn’t postpone pausing for lunch, sipping some water, or breaking for the bathroom any longer. If I treated my body more gently, maybe my mind would follow, and as my thoughts became gentler, I might be more considerate of my body’s needs and limitations. Ultimately, I hoped I would be able to respond more mindfully, compassionately, and wholeheartedly to the surging and fading activity of daily life. Yet, I acknowledged that even my best efforts would inevitably fall short of my idealized notions. And that was ok.
In all my years of Lents, I never meditated on the difference between penitence and punishment. The punishment bit was always the emphasis for me. Even over the past few years, when I was in recovery and able to recognize the fullness of God’s merciful love, I was still stuck in a very literal interpretation of expressing “sorrow for my sins.” I acknowledged that I was forgiven and that there was reason for abundant joy in the superabundance of God’s grace, but I thought that a “season of repentance” was meant to be spent feeling badly for my faults. Then, I stumbled upon another fortuitous message that seemed to be precisely what was most needed to help me along my path. What I realized was that remaining fixated on my previous failings was an obstacle to my mental and spiritual development. If I truly trusted in the infinite capacity of God’s forgiveness, and I fully believed that He willed my ultimate good, how could I also hold that He desired for me to dwell in sadness for wrongs he already pardoned? Remaining in a cheerless gloom didn’t improve my ability to love myself or my neighbors. Could it possibly be OK to be happy during this penitential season? The very notion struck me as counterintuitive, but how could I respond any differently in the face of such an unimaginable gift?
My understanding of myself and my faith is continuing to expand. I am nurturing a refreshed hopefulness as I notice changes over just these few, short days. Wherever this journey continues from here, I am holding onto a point made by a priest on a podcast that I recently listened to (good thing that I didn’t give them up!) … We’re not bad, we’re just broken; and God wants to heal our brokenness. This Lent, I am inviting Him in. Or, at least, I’m going to try. It is a desert time – a time for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, for self-sacrifice and simplicity. Yet, even in the desert, there is beauty and life.