The Habit of Lent

Growing up in a moderately observant Catholic home meant that every spring brought around a new observance of a very old tradition, the period of fasting and general abstention of Lent in spiritual preparation for Easter.  This usually involved a lot of additional haranguing of elementary aged children to please choose fish sticks instead of burgers at lunch on Fridays, because obviously all of salvation rests on what picky nine year-olds choose to go with their milk and tater tots.  Additionally, as a Catholic child, you were supposed to give up something that you enjoyed very much and that maybe you enjoyed in a guilty way.  You couldn’t give up homework, no matter how hard some of my peers tried to make that one work.  Chocolate, pizza, candy, t.v., and video games were common things classmates claimed to have given up for the forty days of the fast*.  “What are you giving up?” was a question that could be asked of you by pretty much anyone in my community growing up and it wouldn’t have seemed weird or prying (nor would it need explanation or context).  Family, classmates, and people at church all wanted to know how terrible you had set up your Lent to be.  You were absolutely expected to have an answer.  None of this, “I haven’t thought about it,” or, “I’m just doing the regular no-meat thing.”  That would get you an admonishment, even from a near stranger.

The reasons behind Lent were very poorly explained to me as a child.  I sort of worked my way to this general understanding: it was a pretty crummy time for Jesus, so it’s only fair that it’s a pretty crummy time for  you too.  I hated fish sticks, so I figured I was doing my due diligence.  It was a very simplistic understanding of Lent.

But as I grew older and integrated other faith traditions into my life (though I never would have used that phrase to describe it), my understanding of the season grew.  My Presbyterian Church put a lot more focus on building good habits during that time rather than necessarily breaking bad ones.  There was lots of encouragement to read the Bible and pray daily, and almost always there would be new groups that met to study some kind of devotional book during those six weeks.  The time had a studious, committed air to it.  A young child in the Presbyterian Church may have gotten this sense of Lent: Jesus had a pretty crummy time, so you owe it to him to pay attention and understand exactly how crummy.

I jived so much better with a season given to books than to fish sticks.  I really hate fish sticks.

But even at the Presbyterian Church, I always gave something up for Lent.  For one thing, there were still plenty of people who would ask me and I knew I still needed an answer.  “But I’m Presbyterian now,” wasn’t going to be an excuse for some people, it was going to be another accusation.  But more importantly, it was just what I did.  I had a long habit of Lent.  Late winter rolls around, long after I’ve already forgotten about my New Year’s Resolutions, and I start getting itchy to do something to prove I’m in charge of the direction of my life. I hanker after something hard and secret to do.  It used to be challenges that I understood to sort of force God’s hand, a kind of bargaining where I set all the rules.  Eventually it evolved into challenges that I adopted to force my own hand.

For a few years out of my faith, practicing some kind of Lenten forbearance felt right.  I enjoyed the connection to my past and to my family and it never hurts to have some outside structure to help you build or break a habit.  I usually used these times to nurture the introverted part of me better.  I would carve out time to journal or go for walks or do artwork.  Nothing groundbreaking, but easy habits that get neglected because watching youtube videos is so much easier and addicting.  But after a few years of not attending a church it became strange to say I had a Lenten practice.  It became strange to even say it to myself.  Why was this time any different from another?  Why would you put an end date on good practices?  Why burden basic self-care with such religious overtones?

Now I’m not sure what to do with my Lenten habit.  I still have my Shrove Tuesday spidey sense.  I can feel it sneaking up on the calendar.  I’ll certainly celebrate Fat Tuesday, I mean, obviously, right?  Who can deny the wonder of a day dedicated to pancakes and doughnuts?  But what will Wednesday bring?

The past few years I’ve watched Lent go past without any outward observance.  It became too strange to observe myself.  The experience was a lot like visiting my high school after I graduated.  The first couple times I went back it was great, I knew most people and got to visit my old stomping grounds.  Then I went back once and didn’t know any of the students at all and only some of the teachers.  I knew the building – all the rooms and doors and hallways – but emotionally and socially it was like a blank slate.  Lent became like that.  I know how Lent works, when it begins and ends and all the rules it follows but all the meaning had drained out somehow.  I can see what Lent used to mean in the past tense for me, but I can’t make it mean anything in the present tense.  In the past it was a kind of power, a kind of wind that moved me.  Now it is a kind of puppet and I move it instead.  Instead of the outward observance of fish sticks there is only an inward observance of yearning and disappointment.  I miss Lent and it’s a new thing to add to the list of things I miss about belonging to the church.

*BTW, those forty days don’t include Sundays, which at least in the Catholic Church, are always considered Feast Days.  So, technically, you could enjoy all those things on Sunday and not break your fast.  But this argument never seemed to get me very far with my religious instructors.  I saw it as an excellent application of my canon knowledge; they saw it as cheating.  It’s probably fair to say it was both.

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2 Responses to The Habit of Lent

  1. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has a nice take on Lent in a 2-minute video at http://vimeo.com/85748600.

  2. kesseljunkie says:

    You can suspend for the feast days, but not in an overly-indulgent way. To wit, I’ve given up alcohol this year for Lent. However, on two Sundays I was socializing with friends and/or family. I had a drink with dinner/before dinner on those occasions. If I’d gone out and gotten rip-roaring drunk, *that* would have been cheating. In specific, Sundays are *special* feast days because they’re “Easter in miniature” — otherwise I could also have used the Feast of St. Patrick to drink, and *that* would have been cheating. 🙂

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