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Sunday, February 14, 2016

I Love Lent

Ash Wednesday - Carl Spitzweg

I've never been one to "follow the crowd". On anything. Ever.

So, probably those who have read this blog are not at all surprised to read that I love Lent. Other than Advent, it's really my favorite liturgical season of year.

One of the best things about Lent is that you don't have to belong to a church to observe Lent. In fact, I'm going to be so bold as to say that sometimes, it's better if you don't.

The image the church holds out of Lent is, for me, captured in that Carl Spitzweg portrait above.

Entitled "Ash Wednesday." It depicts a jester - the symbol of frivolity and foolishness - sitting in what may well be a prison cell. He's utterly alone, seemingly lost in deep contemplation - accompanied only by a shaft of light with a pitcher of water nearby.

The symbolism of light and water are inescapable as an antidote to his miserable condition.

To be honest, I really think that misses the point of Lent. It's really not about doom and gloom, sin and confession, suffering and sacrifice. 

It's about taking time - a most precious commodity in life - to contemplate not about things "high and holy" but about what it means to be mortal - a human being. About how one might be a better human being. About how that human might make the world a better place.

That's a very counter-cultural thing to do. To take time - to be intentional about it - to think about being human. Our culture, our society, does not encourage this. Indeed, in many ways our culture offers lots of ways to anesthetize and isolate oneself.

Neither does the church, in fact, do so good a job of Lent - even though it created it.  The Church means well. But, the Church often encourages us to strive to be saints. Which, of course, doesn't happen until after you die.

Lent is about setting apart a time certain - 40 days and 40 nights - to do as Jesus did, right after his baptism: to think about what it means to be human and what God was calling him to do with the divine gift of this human life.

In the Gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Lent, Jesus goes into "the wilderness" where he is tempted by Satan in the three circumstances when humans are most sorely tempted.




These three are conditions of body, mind and spirit.

Because we are human, we experience physical and emotional and spiritual hunger or gluttony, power or impotence, and human conditions of humility and arrogance.

Lent is about taking the time to be intentional about what feeds us and what depletes us.

It's about exploring the boundaries of excess and deprival.

Lent is also about taking the time to be intentional about sources and systems of power and authority. It's about discovering our unique gifts and resources and how we use them - or don't, or abuse them - and why.

Finally, Lent is about taking the time to be intentional about you. Your identity. Who you are. Whose you are. What you value. What you are willing to die for. What makes life worth living. What you are called to do with your life. What your relationship is to other people, the world, and the One who gave you life.

It's about exploring the limits of your life and taking the time to learn how to make the most of the time you have to be the best you can be and make the world a better place.

You don't have to be part of a church to observe Lent. In fact, the church can get in the way of a good, albeit "holy" observance of Lent, concentrating more on sin and sacrifice and penitence than the wholeness - and holiness - of human life.

Fasting and sacrifice and practicing piety and humility are all good - if practicing those things help you be intentional on the hunger of your body, mind and spirit. If it makes you a better person. If it helps you, throughout the rest of the year, work to make the world a better place.

But, if it tries to make you someone you don't even remotely recognize - if it's not authentic and has no integrity - well, what's the point? You are just going through the motions. 

As Leo Buscaglia once said, "If you are a banana, don't put your energies into trying to be an apple. Be the best banana you can possibly be, blemishes and all."

Indeed, I don't believe you have to be Christian to observe Lent. However, my experience is that following Jesus as your teacher and guide can make that journey more meaningful. Not necessarily easier but more deeply transformative. Well, that's my experience, anyway.

At his best, Jesus can teach you about 'metanoia' - about stopping what you're doing - right dead in your tracks - so that you may turn around and find another way - another path - that will lead you to wholeness and holiness of life.

Lent only happens once a year - well, on the church calendar - but I'm of the opinion that it ought to happen at least periodically throughout all of the days of our lives.

Indeed, I've come to believe that Lent is a wonderful way of life - to strive to make the necessary sacrifices so you can discover or uncover or recover the truth about hunger and power and glory - our own and that of our neighbors and the world.

Sound too esoteric? Too exotic?

Like you'd have to travel to a foreign country and pay lots of money to a Spiritual Guide and walk a hundred miles on your knees, chanting a spiritual mantra in exactly the right way?

Well, one day when you've got some time - or are of a mind to take some time - take a peak at the 12-Steps of Recovery.

You don't have to be an alcoholic or addicted to some substance to find that those steps will place you on a path to living an effective and deeply spiritual model of living Lent every day of your life. 

Living a Lenten Life will put us in direct conflict with the world - and parts of the church - that beckon us to anesthetize and isolate ourselves, but as Socrates famously said at his trial for "impiety and corrupting youth " for which he was subsequently sentenced to death,

"The unexamined life is not worth living. "

May this Lent be for you so w/holy, so meaning-full, so in-tentional, that you will be inspired throughout the year to make several journeys into the wildernesses of your own humanity, that you may be tempted to discover there the boundaries of your needs and excesses, your human frailty as well as your strengths - what makes life so worth living that you are willing to die for it - as well as your relationship with yourself, your neighbor, the world and God.

I hope you will come to love, Lent, too.


8thday said...

Being a life long backpacker I truly understand the soul-searching, soul-filling nature of being out in the wilderness. Now, as I age and can't go as often or as deep as I'd like to, I have been thinking about other ways to create that kind of spiritual experience.

Lent. The 12 step program. I will be giving this more thought.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think short walking meditation trips can be just as effective as long, intense ones. Just takes an attitude adjustment for a different paradigm of meditation.

The co-author of the 12-Steps was an Episcopal Priest.

Peter said...

As you well know, Elizabeth, it was the Rev. Samuel Shoemaker and Bill Wilson who, using some of the Oxford Group's ideas and principles, and aided, I believe a lot, by the Holy Spirit, created the 12 Steps, which for me are a "rule" of life, much like the Benedictine Rule or that of the SSJE in Cambridge. I live by them as best I can, especially Steps 1-3 and 9-12. (As I've often heard in meetings, Step 1 is the only one you have to get right all the time!) I came upon them at age 34 and found in them guidelines for my behavior that somehow my parents never taught me, perhaps because they didn't know them either, trapped as they were in their own addictions. The Steps help me stay in the present, for one thing. They help me be more self-aware. They ask me to self-reflect on a daily basis. They call me to give my life to God every day and let go. Oh, and they also keep me sober!

I've often thought that the 12 Steps were my path back to God, to a growing faith. That gift came through others in 100s of AA , AlAnon, and ACOA meetings, and still does today. It didn't come through the church for the most part ~ with the major exception of two priests: Ernest Cockrell and Alla Bozarth, who ministered to me in good times and dark times, and who still do, whether they know it or not.

The three 4th and 5th Steps I've done over the years I've always done in Lent, which as you say is is good time for self-reflection. It's Lent again, and it's been many years now since my last 5th Step. It's time for another. I've been mentally doing a 4th Step for several weeks already, and it's time to get it on paper. Some things that happened long ago have been weighing on me, and I need to lay them before God, and then probably do a really difficult 9th Step.

Thank you for your reflections.

Alla Renée Bozarth said...

How beautifully said, Elizabeth. Thank you for your witness to the Living Christ Who Calls Us to Think Deeply and to Use Our Mortality Well.

8thday said...

I understand (I think) that your point is that Lent is not necessarily a time of sacrifice but rather a time for contemplation. But I would suggest that in order to get to a really deep place, sacrifice IS necessary. It is the difference between going for a jog and running a marathon. Both are considered exercise but only the hardest one will get you through “the wall”. Likewise while I find that a short, meditative walk can be very restorative, I don’t think it does for the soul searching mind what going into the wilderness for 40 days will do. (read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, for example) I don’t think until one is truly challenged, that they can break through to a deeper level. It’s one of the issues I have with religion today, well, actually with society in general. The idea of hard work and sacrifice have fallen to feel good, short term instant gratification. Well, that’s my take anyway.

Lastly, I read through the 12 step program and was surprised at how God-centered it was. Some thought provoking guidance for sure, but what do atheists do?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, 8th Day

Re: Sacrifice, here's what I wrote: "Indeed, I've come to believe that Lent is a wonderful way of life - to strive to make the necessary sacrifices so you can discover or uncover or recover the truth about hunger and power and glory - our own and that of our neighbors and the world."

"Necessary sacrifices" - not just sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice - "giving up" something you probably ought not be doing - or doing to excess - in the first place. That's really not a "necessary sacrifice". I think being intentional - especially about time and meditation and contemplation - IS a terribly inconvenient but completely necessary sacrifice - if the goal is to be a better person and make the world a better place.

As for 12-Step Programs and atheists. Well, my understanding is that the 12 Step program as all about "the God of our understanding" or "Higher Power". I've known many atheists who have done very well in 12-Step Programs and many religious people who fail miserably because they can't grasp the spirituality. They are too focused on religion. Atheists can be very spiritual people. They just don't believe in God as God has been described and explained to them. But, they get that there is a power that is universal that is, as I have heard one person describe it, "The Me that's bigger than me."

I don't pretend to know how it all works. I'm not even making the claim that it works. I just know that the 12 Step Program is pretty effective, both as a program of recovery as well as a spiritual "rule of life". Does it "work" or is it "effective" for everyone - obviously not. But, I offer it as a model - one model - to consider as we consider this time of Lent in general and "Lent as a way of life" in particular.

Hope that's helpful.

8thday said...

Thank you, as always, for your patience with my questions and for your thoughtful answers. I find religion fascinating and I always learn something here.

Bex said...

@8th Day: Have you tried the practice of walking a labyrinth?