Growing up in a Catholic town, Lent was a big deal. I would see kids at the bus stop with smudges of ash on their forehead talking in a way that was both reluctant and excited about what they were giving up for Lent. They would compare the grade school vices they were giving up with pride.
“I’m giving up pop!”
“That’s it? I’m giving up chocolate!”
“Yeah? Well, I’m giving up TV!”
I was in awe of their will, knowing that I could never give up any of those things, but mystified as to why they were even doing so. “Why do you have to give up stuff for Lent?” I would ask.
“It’s what you do” they always answered.
“Oh, okay. I’ll give up lima beans.”
“That doesn’t count. It has to be something you like.”
“Because that’s how it works.”
That was the mystery of Lent for me. Why did they bother giving something up at all? What was the point of any of it? Spend a month without stuff you like and at the end you get to pig out on chocolate. What good was that?
Turned out that a lot of my Catholic friends didn’t really understand it either. My sophomore year in high school the religion teacher asked the class about Lent (I went to a Catholic high school, we had a religion class each year). No one knew anything about it except it meant not eating red meat on Friday and giving up sweets.
“How many of you go out to eat once a week with your family?” he asked. Hands shot up across the room. “Okay, so let’s say every Friday your family goes to McDonalds for dinner. However, since it’s Lent, instead of going to McDonalds for burgers, you decide to go to Red Lobster since you can’t eat red meat. Is that the right thing to do?” There were a few silent nods in the room, but most of us just stared blankly back at him. This felt like a trick.
“Technically it is. The church says no red meat on Friday during Lent, but it’s not within the spirit of Lent. You are missing the meaning altogether.”
My ears pricked up. There was a meaning? I needed to hear this.
“Before Jesus started his work, he spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. During that time he was tempted by the devil. No one knows what happened or how he was tempted, but when he returned, he was ready to do his work, to do God’s work. We observe Lent to do as Jesus did, to humble ourselves before God, to cleanse ourselves of temptation so that we will be ready to do the work of God. By going out to a fancy seafood dinner instead of some humble McDonald’s burgers, you are doing the opposite of what Jesus did. You’d be better off eating red meat in this case.”
That made a lot more sense to me than, “It’s just what you do.”
There is a lot to be said for preparing yourself to do this kind of work. When it comes to living out your values, one should determine what those values are. By getting rid of the distractions around you and intentionally focusing on what is larger than yourself, you gain a better understanding of self, of your connection to the web of life and how you should live within that web. This is a time of quiet, intentional reflection.
So how we as Unitarian Universalists, with our vibrant and diverse beliefs, live into the spirit of Lent? I have a few ideas:
1. Meditation: Now is a great time to start a meditation practice. There is a web site call Winter Feast for the Soul that has a great 40 day meditation practice on overcoming that I would recommend. Even just sitting quietly in silence for 15 minutes a day focusing on your breathing will do wonders.
2. Beauty Walks: If the weather is good, go outside and talk a 15-30 minute walk. BUT, no music, no cell phone, no distractions. Just you and your environment. On your walk take the time to notice what is around you. The shape of a tree, the chittering of a squirrel, the sound of the nearby road. Reflect on what you encounter in a positive light.
3. Yoga: There is a small Yoga group at UUFP. 9:30-10:45am on Tuesdays. Ask Nancy Sessoms for details.
4. Journaling: There is a practice called “Morning Pages” where you put your pen to paper (or cursor to screen) and write constantly for 30 minutes. Do not stop writing to fix errors or spelling, just keep going writing whatever is in your head. If stream of consciousness doesn’t work for you, maybe you should use some prompts that help you go deeper into your own values. “I believe that___,” “What is most important to me is____,” “My ideal self is____,” are a few examples. There are some much better ones here.
These are just a few examples of things you can do, but the idea is to take some time to reflect. Many of us have been on high alert since the election and reacting to a lot of horrible things that have been happening. We can’t stay on high alert forever, we need to take some time to breathe and to tend to our own wounds. If we don’t we will exhaust ourselves before any change can be enacted. Taking the time to reflect helps you to stay engaged with what is important.