Because so many present day seekers have come from other, more conservative and conventional churches when they were young, many of us have been exposed to the season of Lent as having a historical and theological significance. In our Western religious culture, one cannot escape at least a superficial acquaintance with its meaning and purpose.
Lent is a time often described as a time for increased piety, extra prayer and worship services, and self sacrifice. Historically, Christians and particularly those Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans who were required to abstain from certain practices, habits, or activities and most often were instructed to fast or abstain from eating certain foods.
Now, the ideal or best practices associated with the Lenten season can be summarized as attitudes that encouraged retreat from the world’s fast pace and demands. Then to take that freed up time, and focus it on becoming more contemplative, looking at those areas of your life that might need improvement or reform, and to focus of new insights that can help to release you from habits and fears. The noble ideal behind the food restrictions was to help us to break our attachments, addictions, and pleasures- any tie we had to external material rewards and egotistical routines. The goal of these Lenten disciplines was to make the Christian more properly ascetic: that is, more able to give up their problems, in order to receive or claim more freedom, becoming more willing to release ego preoccupations and spend time in discerning their next steps and what sources of inspiration and guidance were available to them in their lives.
Classically, it is from our souls being more disciplined or aligned with God that we are freed to practice more loving self acceptance and more intelligent self control. …
Now, among those of you who were made to observe Lent when you were growing up, did anyone ever satisfactorily explain it to you in that way? Is there any lasting value in Lenten observance for you now, as U-U’s? I will venture my own interpretation, and I will offer to try to provide you with a viable alternative.
First, a little religious background for all of you who were ever curious about what your Catholic and other high school friends were going through… Originally, Lent was a brief and intense time that prepared a person for Baptism. It was that soul-searching time before someone declared themselves a Christian in the early, and often persecuted Church. Considered to be a time for deep reflection and profound decision-making, it was a momentous step in a person’s life. This time of Lent was originally only 40 hours long, to reflect the time period between Good Friday and Easter morning. However, then it was a time of complete fasting, and a rigorous mental discipline.
This practice went through many historical changes. The principal one happening during the Middle Ages, when the time period for Lent was increased or prolonged to reflect a correspondence to Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. This extended time period was accompanied by a selected fast from meat and dairy products for all healthy people between the ages of 12 to 60; the only exceptions being nursing mothers. Unfortunately, or shall I say, predictably, this eclesial rule of a selected fast was dolefully interpreted as being a time for self-sacrifice and deprivation, rather than as a time associated with grateful remembrance and devotion.
The attitude of self deprivation, especially when enforced by a particularly dogmatic clergy and inflexible church structure has yielded some interesting and contradictory results. The most appealing begin the creation of of many preLenten revels, all-out parties, and celebrations… The most famous of these are French “Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras” or the Portuguese Rio Carnivale. … For you see, the words carnivore and carnival relate to the same kind of fleshly cravings and indulgences! Therefore, Mardi Gras and Carnavales were the reluctantly condoned revels or church-related orgies just before the days and weeks of required self-sacrifice. (Remember, the restriction of one’s diet is a common religious occurrence; for example, there are Kosher food laws, Islamic fasts during the month of Ramaden. Tragically, part of our misunderstanding of food practices has contributed sociological and psychologically in the development of dietary imbalances and psychological illnesses- from our society’s chronic pre-occupation over weight to the tragedies of bulimia and anorexia that are now affecting 20% of all young women (1 in 5) and is currently growing in older women (and in some men) being seen in increasing amounts in women of mid life Or ages 35-55…
I can remember meatless Wednesdays and Fridays all through my Catholic youth. At that time, I considered it quite a hardship, and its rationale was a perplexing, obtuse mystery. ( It was much later, when reading anecdotes in church history that I discovered that the Pope, in the 1800’s, instituted the eat fish laws in order to help out the Italian fishing industry!
These eating restrictions were was told to me as something we all have to do! I really did not like the idea at all, and I wasn’t a member of the Big Mac/Whopper generation of today! After all, my traditional fare of lentil beans, cornmeal, and some fish, no matter how nutritious, got a little boring, and even I could get tired of pasta! (When I was 10, My Father & Mother went off to an FBI school, so my Aunt Frances had to care for me feed me. Every Wednesday and Friday night she said that I could have my choice: I can have pasta and beans or beans and pasta! Story about the Statues around her home; St. Anthony; ; dialogues; turning him around! Also I have included a more serious and somber reflection on Ash Wednesday and Lent on my webpage)
So you see, the idea of Lent was related to me as a time to be endured, not understood. An almost morose pallor engulfed my family during the week. We all looked forward to the big Sunday meal, our weekly indulgence.
That was a big feast with all the chicken, sausage, and meatballs you could stuff in! Some quality religious observance that was!
One time, my family held a ravioli eating contest… I came in second, or first in the junior division, having eaten 48 raviolis (big squares!) Of course, there was a lot of Pepto Bismal in my future, as I could not eat another thing for the next two days!
When I look back on the prevalent family attitude, it was far from holy or reverent. Now, I find that it is all too ironic,that as an adult, I have sharply reduced my eating of any meat without any overtones of religious persuasion … but that would involve another sermon on world hunger, ecology, and proper nutrition…
Needless to say, much of the original intent, the symbolic and spiritually based reasoning behind Lent was never adequately explained, and that has resulted in generations of people playing out empty, self-defeating rituals. So I have had to ask myself, if there is any lasting value in Lenten remembrance for us today, if so, what might it be?
As I see it, the lasting principle found in a sincere Lenten observance is the time when each of us can reflect on having more personal motives and consequences, and the human need to learn greater objectivity and self control. Stripped of its pious baggage, Lent can become a time, for setting new priorities for one’s life, and for cultivating purposeful actions that free us from any negativity, and that assist us in accomplishing our higher goals.
Many of us who shared a similar dutiful childhood, and as a consequence, later, as adults, we have become religious liberals because we balk at the imposition of sanctions and limits, especially when enforced by some restrictive irrational and unexplainable moral code. However, when these disciplines are of your own devising, we can use them to focus our willpower and to develop greater inner peace and self-control. Rather than just going the way of all of our inner cravings, Lent can be a time to remedy or reduce these faulty inclinations all of us have, and we can apply ourselves to the task of greater self understanding.
I believe that every one of us has some demon or habit or character trait that is unflattering, that has to be faced and overcome. Therefore, because it is human and universal, there can be no judgment nor room for arrogance; no need for any lasting remorse or endless regret. Instead, Lent can be that personally bestowed gift of time and focus we give to ourselves to help us clarify and release the emotional or personal struggles any of us, and all of us might have.
In truth, we must, in some measure, agree or be willing to accept the consequences of some behavior in order to continue it. Even if that conduct is self-defeating, risky or unhealthy, we have to agree to it or else it would soon disappear. In that way, Lent is a time to reacquaint yourself with your own limits and to energize your own potentials and to begin positive steps towards growth, freedom, and greater awareness.
And yes, sometimes what we are faced with are issues and problems in our lives that are unsettling, awkward, and often damn difficult! Yet, that self admission is no grounds for being severe, hateful, or unkind toward yourself or any one else. These steps toward greater responsibility and freedom for one’s mind, body and spirit, for one’s health, relationships, and ideals, bringing us to of humility and to the advocacy of compassion. As Jesus put it, “Only those who are without sin can cast stones.”
As I see it, to live, is to be involved in a continual, evolutionary and ethical process, for each person has to deal honestly with their personal banes and come to know and be grateful for their individual blessings. Each of us has to understand how, or in what ways they might need to explore, change, or transform their lives.
I would propose two healthful measures that have been useful to me. They come from two diverse sources: from training in Gestalt therapy, and from training in Buddhist philosophy. The Gestalt or psychological format asks us to appraise our behavior patterns without censure. It simply states that we are to evaluate our feelings and actions by whether they are nourishing or toxic to us.
When behavior is nourishing, it give us dignity, awareness, understanding and self-respect. When because is toxic, then it is harmful to our self-esteem, our health, our families, to our well-being. I find that to be a simple and effective measure or standard to apply for greater self-awareness that is free of punitive conclusions and self righteous moral judgments.
The second guideline I would recommend is from Buddhist teachings. It emphasizes justice and sobriety, balance and the avoidance of excess; be it dietary, financial, relational, mental or physical. It states that we are to act without any feelings of self-denial nor act in ways that are self-indulgent. We are simply, to think ethically, act soberly, and speak broadmindedly. It emphasizes justice over judgment, equity over imbalance, moderation in thought, feeling and behavior. In this way, our tendencies and habits, problems and pressures, do not or will not control or victimize us. It can be summarized as this: That it our shared human need to establish inner personal guidelines so that we can overcome our actions that can lead to addiction- which is simply defined as the human tendency to try to get too much of what we don’t truly do not need.
This Lenten season, try to take some time each day to reflect on various virtues and principles you would like to see manifest in your lives. Then look at your lifestyle, your choices, your patterns for living and then try to notice if there is anything that could use some improvement, some further balance, some greater empathy and understanding.
Be willing to examine your goals- decide for a more positive, creative, and inspired approach to living. Maybe you can begin to keep a dream log, start a journal, or an exercise program, attend a class, or be aware of how your sacred intentions or prayers can bring new insights and empowerment to you with persistent progress.
And remember to begin soon, because according to the consensus of opinion in psychological circles, it takes at least three weeks to break a negative habit, establish new learning, or develop a lasting initiative that can span this Lenten season.
Lent can become a holy time- a gift your give to yourself as a time when you can discover who and what you are, and with inner guidance and grace, all that you can truly be.
Amen, So Be it!