We’re into week three of that mysterious season, Lent, in the Christian tradition — some denominations go all out, and others recognize the 40 days of Lent in more subtle ways. I think I’ve done both over the years, but I always try to acknowledge the season, at least to myself.
In the tradition I’m most familiar with, Roman Catholic, Lent has three main components: almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. All three ask us to be mindful by giving to those in need (almsgiving), keeping our own self-indulgence in check (fasting), and remembering Jesus’ suffering, the suffering throughout the world today, our own shortcomings, and — as always — giving thanks through prayer.
The 40 days, incidentally, recall the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, where he was tempted by Satan. He was steadfast and came out of the experience to move forward in his public ministry. Lent 2018 lasts from Ash Wednesday, Feb. 15, to Easter Sunday, April 1. If you exclude counting the six Sundays during Lent, you’re left with 40 days. I may have lost those readers who aren’t completely onboard with organized religion and its regulations, especially when it involves math. I hear you!
But for me, the thing to remember is that Lent is a time when I can really devote myself to trying to go deeper, do better; it’s a reminder of sorts about right living. Lent helps me remember the way I should be living all year long: giving to others, recognizing when I screw up and acknowledging my shortcomings, and remembering that no matter what, I need to be thankful for everything from my family to the way the sky looks on a cloudless day.
So even though it’s a solemn season for the Christian churches, it is really in many ways the most important season. We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday, this year on Valentine’s Day, and we end it with Easter Sunday, oddly enough falling on April Fool’s Day this year. When ministers put ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, it symbolizes repentance and mortality, and it’s also a kind of kickoff of Lent. Some people choose to abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent, or they may give up something they enjoy for 40 days — chocolate, a glass of wine after dinner, watching television, or checking Facebook every five minutes. At the end of Lent, there’s Good Friday, which commemorates Jesus’ death on the Cross, then the next day is Holy Saturday, which marks the day his body lay in the tomb. Finally, on Easter Sunday, we remember the day he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. That’s a quickie version and a not-so-exact definition of Lent. It might mean different things for different people. I like to think of it as a time to renew my faith, look at how I’m living it out — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I also try to do some reading this time of year, books like “The Cloud of Unknowing” or anything by Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton — “Siddhartha” is a beautiful novel by Hermann Hesse that can always use a reread — any book that helps me look inside and recognize ways all things, including myself, are touched by the divine. You don’t have to be of any certain religious persuasion at all to benefit from reading about other people’s spiritual journeys or self-discovery; you’ll likely find a bit of yourself in their words. Here’s to a fruitful Lent that leads to living mindfully the rest of the year!