“”Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.”
~T. S. Eliot~
According to Wikipedia, that bastion of academic standards (cough, cough), the purpose of Lent is defined as “the preparation of the believer — through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial — for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” On this, the eve of Ash Wednesday, I have been doing some reflective thinking about the Lenten season. This, in itself, is unusual for me (reflecting on the Lenten season, not reflection itself as I do happen to utilize my gray matter on occasion); although I have been a spiritual person in one way or another all of my life, I grew up Quaker and we didn’t dwell much on the meaning of Lent as it leads up to that which I consider the holiest of the liturgical periods during the year. While there have been long periods in my life when I turned away from Christ because I felt that I, as a lesbian (a black sheep, a heathen, the one who stepped out from underneath the protection of God’s umbrella) was not worthy of His love–I have since come to embrace my spiritual nature and celebrate the good works of God in my life and the lives of those around me. In doing so, I’ve discovered that while I love the Christmas season, it is that period from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday that truly moves me. It is a highly emotional time for me: the anticipation that builds during palm Sunday, the mournful voices raised up in my favorite spiritual, “Were You There,” in the darkness of the Tenebrae, the bitters upon my tongue on Good Friday as I can almost feel the physical pain God’s son endured upon the cross and the anguished cry, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?”
Then, there is the jubilation of Easter Sunday. The glory of the resurrection. The knowledge that all that is broken can be made whole again and that we can be redeemed not just that day but every single day of our lives. Would that I had a better understanding of this season. Despite attending church my entire life, I am no Biblical scholar. I cannot quote scripture, I do not read the Mystics, I cannot carry on an easy discourse of theology. I am humbled in my rough-hewn attempts to explain my thoughts surrounding this time of the year. But bear with me, I meant to talk about Lent.
Lent. “prayers, penitence, almsgiving, and self-denial….” Self-denial is what has always come immediately to mind when I thought of Lent. I did not begin the practice of giving something up for Lent until a few years ago–and frankly, it has never gone well. I’ve never made it 40 days without cheese, much less 40 days in a desert (either literal or figurative). I am an abject failure when it comes to self-control. This year, I vowed I would find something that I could give up for 40 days and stick with it. I wanted it to be meaningful, something that would be difficult for me, nearly impossible. It wasn’t until I received the monthly announcements from my church that I decided upon my own course of action. Our pastor wrote the following:
In the youth class on Sunday we spoke a bit about traditions in Lent of giving something up. A fast from chocolate or meat or Dewey’s sweetcakes might just be the transformational sweet spot for you. But this Lent there may be an invitation for us to “give up” something that is right in the path of our intention, our awareness of love and forgiveness. This might just be a fast from inner self criticism that does not lead to constructive evaluation or a weekly Sabbath from internet/Smartphone technology replaced with intentional conversation. This might be actually an intention to add one practice like a slow, mindful walk or attention to breathing at traffic lights, grocery lines, or washing the dishes. Then, of course, the Carbon Fast is more than just an ethical endeavor; it may just help uncover a new place of joy and attention.
“…a fast from inner self-criticism…” The line hit me like a ton of bricks. I have been struggling terribly with my self-esteem of late. Oh, who are we kidding, I’ve been struggling with my self-esteem my entire life. However, in the nine months since I’ve moved back to the South, I’ve somehow managed to gain 20 pounds. That may not seem like a lot, but when you consider the fact that I am now 80 pounds heavier than I was when I graduated college, it’s a lot. When I realized I was fast approaching the 200 pound mark, I hit the panic button. I’ve agonized, cried, anguished, and generally thrown a giant pity party for myself loud enough for anyone within a 900 mile radius to hear. I look in the mirror and I think the most hateful, vile thoughts. I say things to myself that I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy. I have a deep sense of hatred for this body and automatically assume that the flaws I see immediately are picked up by anyone even glancing in my direction (that double chin, my stomach, the cellulite, on and on and on and on). It’s superficial and disrespectful. It’s a habit that has been ingrained in me for years and I abhor the energy I spend on such frivolity when there are people close to me dealing with life or death health issues; when there are countries at war and gas prices skyrocketing and our carbon footprint getting larger by the day.
This single paragraph from my pastor made Lent less of a time to be penitent and live in self-denial and more of a time to be truly mindful and nurturing in preparation for our rebirth. His words led me to decide then and there to give up self-loathing. My assumption, my fervent hope, is that by spending 40 days focusing on the affirmation of this vessel that houses my spirit, I may actually learn to give up this hatred of self altogether. I feel a sense of letting go, of hopefulness, of true intent. In the coming days, you, dear reader, may be hearing more of my affirmations–my coming to appreciate the temple of my familiar. In concentrating on this sense of self, I hope to let go of this concentrated self-absorption. In moving past the self-absorption, I hope to acquire a greater sense of peace with myself, my family, my spiritual journey, and the world around me. My intent is purposeful: to be reborn as a person of substance. Someone who has a better understanding and appreciation for all that this physical body can do for me here on the Earthly plane. I am awash in the possibilities that lay ahead of me. The coming days and weeks will no doubt be difficult and I may well stumble and fall back into the comforting habits of inner vitriol. But, as all is forgiven, I too shall know forgiveness. And I shall practice forgiving myself as I forgive others.
I am not going to be tempted into making jokes about Fat Tuesday. I will simply say this: We are given a great gift in this time before the Holy week. Use it wisely, be mindful, be present, learn from it, don’t dwell in self-denial, rejoice. Rejoice. Rejoice.