This Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Lent is a season of repentance in preparing for Easter marked by prayer, fasting (the Catholic version) and alms giving. As a child, I grew up giving up something for Lent–chocolate, TV, calling my sisters names. As an adult, the idea of giving something up was lackluster–it was too tempting to turn Lent into a time for personal improvement, where I could diet by giving up sweets, or make a resolution to make time to exercise, or save money by giving up shopping. I’ve even disengaged from some of the other worthy goals of Lent, like reflection and spending time with, not just money on, the poor. Becoming an adult allowed me to engage in Catholicism in ways that I didn’t learn about as a child. My interfaith marriage and our Yom Kippur experience last year inspired me to look at Lent with fresh eyes this year. Here are some of my guiding philosophies, from what I’ve read on blogs, magazines and, of course, Twitter.
1.There can be sacrifice in doing as well as in giving something up.
Like New Year’s resolutions, I was never good at maintaining my Lenten abstinence from sweets, entertainment or bad behaviors/habits. Plus, I found it difficult to envision how giving up something would (a) be sustainable beyond Lent and (b) make me a better person once Lent was over. Plus, the approach was encouraging me to focus more on improving myself than repenting. Then I started trying to do something for Lent, instead of giving something up. Donate money for every snack I *wanted* to buy from the snack bar. Do one act of service during Lent for the larger community. Be kinder to and more present with my family. And these things have changed my daily life–not in profound ways, but in helping me take small steps to become the person I want to be.
2. Lent, like life, is not always about what you want to accomplish, but is about what you let God accomplish through you.
This is not an original thought, but it’s one from the Twittersphere that has stuck with me this Lent. Lent is not just an opportunity to hit the “reset” button, but it’s about reflecting and repenting–taking stock of my life and my choices, and considering what brings me closer to God and what keeps me at bay. It’s creating the space to allow God to work through me, rather than simply charting my own course. This year, I’m planning to do a daily reflection as a practice of making time to be present for others, because that’s something I’m struggling to make time for in my life right now. Notice that I’m choosing not to be specific in how I am to be present to others, because I’m hoping to reflect more on that as Lent goes on.
3. Fasting is nothing to dread, but something to look forward to.
This year, through my Yom Kippur experience, I experienced fasting in a different way than I ever had before. It wasn’t the observance of a particular set of rules (for my rundown of Catholic fasting practices, see my previous blog post), but rather a complete surrender. I was unable to do anything I usually did at home–chores, socialize, read, cook–because my energy was weakened. But being able to do nothing was freeing–it made me vulnerable and focused on my reason for fasting, the reflection on my life and the ways I have not “measured up.”
Fast forward to this past Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, and a day of fasting for Catholics. I always struggle with fasting on Ash Wednesday, because I, like many others, work a full day and always asked, “How can I fast and put in 100 percent at my job?” However, my Yom Kippur experience made me excited to try to observe the Ash Wednesday fast because it allows me to accept that some days, I cannot give my normal 100 percent. Usually, I try to push past those days by getting an extra cup of coffee or a piece of candy for a sugar rush, urging myself to focus on the computer. But fasting weakens me and allows me to accept my own limits, and to then do the best that I can within those limits. This limit on our humanity is one of the key themes of Ash Wednesday. As Catholics receive ashes, the priest reminds us from Genesis: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
As usual, I was not as true to my fasting aspirations as I had hoped. Even so, I felt a renewal and a marked intention to fully participate in this season of reflection and spiritual improvement. I have my interfaith marriage and what I’ve learned about Judaism to thank for this new perspective on my own faith.