Growing up, I was not at all familiar with Lent, unless we’re talking about what you find in your belly button. I knew it started the day after Mardi Gras. I knew it was grim. And I knew it meant you could neither have stuff you wanted to have nor do stuff you wanted to do. This was about the extent of my knowledge. I maintained a safe distance from it. Sackcloth and ashes? Thanks, but no thanks.My upbringing instilled in me an invaluable love for the Scriptures and a longing to do what’s right, but the seeming archaic traditions of Lent were unfamiliar to me. I could not understand the practical relevance of “dos” and “don’ts” to my walk with G*d and my freedom in Christ.
About a year ago, I had my first silent retreat experience at a Roman Catholic monastery in Kentucky. [You did not have to be a Roman Catholic to retreat there, simply a “Christian” designation was enough for you to be welcome.] If you have never taken a retreat to a monastery, I highly recommend it. The Lord is always ready and willing to lead us right outside of our comfort zone to find new ways to commune with him, and that kind of thing gives Him ample opportunity. One of the mementos I received from the retreat director was a Lenten devotional book. Having just started attending the Orthodox church- and very much feeling like a stranger in a strange land- the very thought of participation in Lent was daunting. So I decided to start small. One devotional a day fit nicely into my existing routine. Like Peter standing on the sea, I was fearful of this strange, new deep.
This year doesn’t find me much more confident. But in every moment, He can teach us and strengthen us. So I’m taking it one day at a time. Only about 35 more to go.
Even if Lent is not a part of your church tradition: the weeks leading up to Easter are a time of reflection and preparation across Christendom. In that vein, I’ve seen a lot of posts on Facebook and Twitter about what people are/are not “giving up” for Lent. But I think it would be helpful to ask a ourselves different question: what do you and I want to gain from the Lenten season? It would be downright disheartening for me to think about how many slices of cheese pizza or how many scoops of ice cream I’ll be missing out on over the next 40 days. But I can think about how much more inclined I will be to lean on G*d in my many moments of weakness.
If you pour enough into a glass, whatever had been standing at the bottom will rise to the top and flow out. Although it is good to say no to certain things, it might also help to look at these decisions to abstain as a way of making room for other thoughts or practices. I’ve heard it called a time of Spring Cleaning- I like that- it always feels good to get rid of the clutter- even though things do look a little bare at first.
Fasting is never easy, or fast, for that matter. But we are taught to keep our chin up, and to not get bogged down in the difficulty. Of course, there is nothing wrong with sharing our goals with friends and family so we can have cheerleaders and partners in accountability. It is nice to know there are others out there who can appreciate the versatility of peanut butter as a meal option. But I am realizing that most of the emphasis needs to be on intimacy with G*d. Jesus gives us an interesting perspective:
16“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”- Matthew 6:16-18 (NIV)
Never one for false piety, His example is one of secret, quiet obedience. He often withdrew to lonely places to pray, and would tell people to keep quiet about his miracles, though they never did! Clearly, He found religious hypocrisy obnoxious like we all do. But beyond that, I love His way of thinking about His spiritual life as having secret times of communion with G*d. It is about capturing the true nature of a retreat; finding a place where you and the Lord alone are in attendance.
Some of the most special times I have had with friends were when it was “just the two of us”: whether it’s a weekend road trip, or something as simple as an inside joke, we have many experiences with our friends that are uniquely our own. This is the kind of relationship the Divine wants with us! If that is the case, far be it from me not to make room.