I remember Lent, in my childhood, as a dreary affair. There was fasting, and we were supposed to give up something important for the duration. My mom seemed to have a thing for filet of sole, which my young tastebuds could not abide. You'd get the ashes on the forehead, and it was kind of just embarrassing. Here was a ritual that didn't remain within the church walls, but that traveled with you and marked you in the world. But I don't remember all that much about the meaning of Lent . . . the "why" of it all. Just that we were sinners and should be penitent.
So it was with some trepidation that I started thinking about this Lenten season, but part of me was curious--what *is* Lent all about, anyway? The more time I spend here with the Sisters, the more I realize that I have so little knowledge about the liturgical calendar, the meanings of feast days, the names of saints . . . There's a near-bottomless trove of history and commentary and interpretation about these religious traditions, emerging from Judaism, encompassing the Desert Mothers and Fathers, including mystics, pre-Christian pagans, medieval scholars, and more. I'm such a newbie, in reality . . .
Most people understand Lent as a time of repentance, as a period of introspection and self-denial. The Eucharist service this morning referred to our human "wretchedness." We knelt on the hard stone floor and asked for forgiveness and mercy. I could help the thought: "oh drat, I haven't chosen anything to give up for the next 40 days."
But a few things I've read in the past couple of days have been pointing me to a more encompassing reading of the meaning of Lent, and for that I'm very thankful. We've spent today in retreat, which has given me an opportunity to think more, and integrate what I've read.
First, one of the blogs I follow had a post entitled "40 Days of Delight." I thought, "well, that's another take on it altogether!" And it is. The post begins with a quote from Thomas Merton (a Catholic, Trappist monk, 20th c):
"Lent is then not a season of punishment so much as one of healing."
Whoa! That's not the Lent I remember. Reading on, I find that the blog author, a dancer, is embarking on a healing period by not watching TV for 40 days, in order to rest her overstimulated mind and to get better, healing sleep. Intrigued, I looked back to her previous post, where she explains her understanding of Lent:
The ashes are not a morbid reminder of our impending deaths, but they are, I assert, meant to wake us up to the opportunity of these bodies.
The opportunity is brief and therefore precious.
Many of us are squandering the opportunity, wearing these bodies heavily, as burdens, rather than inhabiting them joyfully. We diminish the Body, placing it at the bottom of a hierarchy of Spirit and Intellect.
It is through this body that we enter the ocean and feel the salt water and contemplate our connection to the whole.
It is through this body that we embrace those whom we love and know we are not alone.
It is through this body that we celebrate, that we mourn, that we play, that we rest.
The word Lent itself is of Anglo Saxon origin and simply means spring.
Over these 40 days, the ground will less often be white where I live, and I will start to hear a low murmur of water trickling in the ground. There will be small green shoots pushing up through the top crust of earth. By the time we get to Easter, there will be strongly scented flowers at our front door.
The body of the Earth awakens in these 40 days, and I wonder if we are not meant to go through the same process.
What if the practices of Lent typically observed--fasting, self-denial, penitence--were part of this framework, a way for us to make ready our individual bodies, our collective body, the body of the soil, for the spring that is to come? What if we fasted not because we are wretched, but because we are preparing ourselves for new life?
With this spark in my mind, shining a little ray of light onto my aversion to Lent, I went a'googling for more about Thomas Merton and his understanding of Lent. Looking beyond the gendered language, I found in this quote an amazing, deep challenge--to prepare myself to be joyful, to be without fear.
The purpose of Lent is not only expiation, to satisfy the divine justice, but above all a preparation to rejoice in His love. And this preparation consists in receiving the gift of His mercy–a gift which we receive insofar as we open our hearts to it, casting out what cannot remain in the same room with mercy.
Now one of the things we must cast out first of all is fear. Fear narrows the little entrance to our heart. It shrinks up our capacity to love. It freezes up our power to give ourselves. If we were terrified of God as an inexorable judge, we would not confidently await His mercy, or approach Him trustfully in prayer. Our peace and our joy in Lent are a guarantee of grace.
I want to make this Lenten season meaningful to me, to find in it an opportunity to continue my spiritual inner work. One major piece of that inner work is learning how to reconcile my pain and angst about the all-too-flawed institutional church with my joyful experience of the Spirit that moves in this world. If that doesn't rift doesn't need healing, I don't know what does. Seems to me that Thomas Merton, and his call to healing, fearlessness, and joyfulness, is a pretty good place to start.