“Eat the butter,” a friend joked when I posted a photo of sweet, buttery cookies that I’m “giving up” for Lent this year. She thoughtfully linked to a news story in which Pope Francis recommends that we consider giving up indifference to others this year. I very much appreciate the wisdom, and that brief exchange made me want to delve deeper into the mechanics of Lent and other religious practices – Ramadan, Yom Kippur – that offer opportunities to pray, repent, fast, and do good works or give alms. Because of the universality of this practice, I’m removing Lent’s religious coverings to get a better look at the biophysics and metaphysics of these four exhortations.
In my part of the world, it’s early spring, and all sorts of agitations are afoot. The weather is changeable, windy, and wet; it can be hot one moment and very cold the next; the light is bright against black shadows. Baby lambs, children, teenagers and adults alike experience growing pains. In the university where I work the students are in the “grind” part of the semester: the gloss of starting has worn off, and the fruits of their work are still months away. This season goes so much more smoothly when I add a daily session of quiet and meditation. While an ideal diet of quiet could be a half hour in the morning and another in the evening, I’m convinced that even five minutes a day is a good start. The benefit of sitting quietly, perhaps focusing on my breath or on a positive thought, is that it gives me a chance to come back to center in the midst of all the external agitation and change. Blood pressure drops, breath can deepen. A prayer of gratitude generally arises from that quiet.
To repent means to rethink something, and to try to do better. When I repent, I let my mind jump out of the track of an old habit and give it a chance to start a better habit. This year, I’m trying to cure myself of unconsciously using (and throwing “away”) single-use plastics. I’ve also been wanting to get back to public transportation. Baby steps work best for me, so I’m jumping on the light rail every Friday, and bringing my mug with me to coffee shops.
Like so many others, I have a sneaky part in my brain that sees Lent as a chance to lose weight. This year I’m facing that head-on. Lent is not about losing weight, but in a funny way, it could be. Think about how it used to be before planes flew produce around the world all year long. In the Northern hemisphere Lent is the season in which our larder of last fall’s potatoes and apples grows thin – we’ve been eating roots and heavier foods all winter and treating ourselves with sweets (Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day) as a spark of brightness in the long night. But now the ground is giving forth lettuces and young dandelion leaves, a tonic of sweet and bitter greens that fortify our livers. So the period of Lent has corresponded with eating less. But the call to fast is also the call to sacrifice something and to take that energy and pour it into the next practice, which is giving generously. Energetically, these two practices are both sides of the one coin; less for me, that I may give more to you. So this year I am abstaining from what I call luxury foods, and also not eating until I am actually hungry. This clarifies my relationship with food (I’m one of those emotional eaters) and frees up my energy for the next practice.
Do good works/Give alms
I hope I’ve established that quitting something without giving to others is not the point of the Lenten or Ramadan or Yom Kippur practice. It’s not just about me – it’s about having a loving heart and helping to create stronger social ties and heal our world. When we intend to do good, at least in my experience, the opportunities come thick and fast. This year I’ve been working with a committee to alleviate student hunger in my school, but then the flood in San Jose arrived and I can do something there, too. Lent is also a great time to write encouraging letters to others. There’s no shortage of opportunity.
Finally, this is a season with a beginning and an end. We are human; we need discrete practices that approach and recede. This chance comes every year; this year I strive to do my best, and accept that it will be imperfect. Six weeks is a good length of time to practice new habits, and maybe my meditation and public transportation habits will stick around even longer.
But give yourself a fighting chance at this—it’s not enough to just decide what to do on Ash Wednesday and then hope for the best. Track the progress. Find a small notebook and give a sheet to each of your practices. Ignore the failures—take failure out of the equation. Instead, every time you have a success, make a tick mark. I said no to pastry twice yesterday, and passed the bowl of chocolates at the counter. It was a secret delight to whip out my notebook and make three marks. See how many marks you can amass in the next forty days. Build the good habits, and allow openness and the curiosity to see what other thoughts arise about yourself, about creating a better world. And be prepared for joy to arise -- not at the end, but all the way through.