About four years ago I read a book* that, while satire, offered the sage advice to do good deeds and not talk about them. Hands down this is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received. Ever. I read the book shortly before my birthday that year and I accepted it as a challenge. I decided to turn my birthday into a day of service and signed up to … oh, wait, I almost broke the code.
Anyhow, I’ve tried to hold true to that advice more often than not. If I have a reason to share, such as to fundraise or raise awareness, or even to try to change another’s perspective or inspire action, I will. Otherwise, I keep it to myself. It’s not anything I’ve ever discussed with people because, well, the first rule is you don’t talk about it, right? (I do hate to belabor the FIGHT CLUB analogy, but it works here.) Anyhow, I was reminded of this advice this past week by the onslaught of “I’m giving up X for Lent” posts on social media and decided it was time to share.
I was raised Catholic. I don’t go to church anymore, or at least not regularly, for my own reasons. I do love, however, the way Catholicism holds such a deep reverence for the mystery. I am a mystic at heart and a part of me will always be kneeling before a statue of Mary, the prayers of others wafting off candles nearby. That is a piece of home for me.
My spiritual practice has evolved over the years to include many other things and there is much about the church that no longer serves me, that restricts me. That is why I chose to leave. But the practice of Lent is one that I think offers a great deal for many people and that’s why I often still practice it, and why its appeal has spread far beyond Catholicism. (Yes, I know other sects of Christianity practice Lent, though very few make it mandatory and it is most popular in Catholic and Orthodox churches.)
The expansion of a spiritual practice beyond the scope of the religious context in which it was created can be both a very powerful sign of its deep resonance and value, and a potential minefield for those who are adopting it out of context. For example, I have a friend who, though not Jewish, was so moved by Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), that he observed it every year. To recognize where you have erred and to atone for it is a beautiful, healing practice and I think there was a great honor in the way he approached the day. That said, I honestly don’t know how strict adherents to Judaism would feel about it as I don’t believe he observed every requirement (for example, I’m pretty sure he worked despite it being a day of rest) and to say you are observing Yom Kippur, but not following all of the tenets of it seems like it could be a bit problematic for some.
This comes up in a much thornier ways too, like when mainstream culture says that it is adopting Native American religious rites without (1) realizing that there is no “Native American” religion (different tribes have their own religious practices), and (2) those practices are part of a religious whole and when taken out of context and not practiced with the requisite reverence can be severely diminished and cheapened at the expense of actual First Nations people. Moreover, the people who created those rites and beliefs were often not allowed to practice them. So, to now have it be fashionable goes well beyond insulting and problematic. This issue is also an issue with the mainstream adoption of some aspects of Day of the Dead. Again, there’s a lack of recognition that Dia de los Muertos is a deeply sacred day (2 days actually) with a specific practice and not just a party with face paint that helps extend Halloween celebrations. In case there was any doubt, despite the presence of skeletons, Dia de los Muertos is not Halloween. And, again, its practitioners were often barred from safely observing the day because it was considered ancestor worship or witchcraft. So, to be able to practice without any repercussions in a way that the actual adherents of the faith cannot is, in and of itself, an issue.
Lent has always been part of the mainstream culture, so it doesn’t run into those same pitfalls. It is, however, starting to fall into a tricky gray area. It comes fairly soon after most people have started to backslide on their New Year’s Resolutions and I’ve seen people use it to jumpstart a new commitment to one or more of the promises they made to themselves at the start of the year. Its 40 days of practice are meant to eradicate a bad habit or instill a good one, but it was never meant to serve as a type of resolution period, particularly if the plan is to go back to the forsaken thing afterward.
Lent is a sacred practice. It is a time to remove a barrier in your life that is keeping you from accessing your soul, or God, or however you choose to call the divine. (I will note that it’s a Christian practice and if one who is not Christian practices it, some Christians might take offense. Just fair warning.) By eliminating this barrier and getting closer to holiness, you are better able to serve your community. The point of it is accessing spirit through the different prongs of the practice.
I’ve seen lots of people say they are giving up coffee or chocolate or alcohol for Lent. The game plan appears to be to suffer through the 40 days, chronicle the difficulties on social media, and then revert back to regular consumption following Easter.
The point of Lent is not to suffer for the sake of suffering. In a way, the point is to eradicate suffering. Here is an example. Say I choose to give up chocolate because I have a deep affinity for it and I know it will be very difficult for me. The solid development of will power and strength over chocolate certainly has its value. But there’s no holiness in it. Now, say I give up chocolate because I recently became aware that there is a significant issue with child trafficking and slave labor in the chocolate industry. Yes, it would be difficult for me because it is one of my main comfort items. It goes well beyond that, though. I am removing a barrier to my connection to other people on the planet. I am consuming less of someone’s life. I’m going to pause right there because I think that’s something people a lot of people miss. Someone had to pick those beans. Someone had to turn them into chocolate. Someone had to make the packaging. Someone will be left with the trash. Every thing that we consume carries in it the life of the person who made it possible. Now, that awareness and action in accordance with it is holy and it’s a component you’ll find in every major religion.
So, yes, a choice to give up coffee or alcohol or the internet can be a beautiful, sacred act, if it’s done for the right reasons. And if done for a sacred purpose, it may be difficult, but it won’t cause the observant suffer and, more importantly, it won’t cause those around the observant to suffer.
The thing is, sacred practices aren’t meant for public display. Yes, church is a public event. Prayers, however, are kept largely private. Much of the deep inner work that gets done through religious practice is exactly that, inner. A Lent practice is not designed to be bemoaned on social media. It is not a tool to get gold stars on Twitter or likes on Facebook by making a snarky remark about how difficult existence is without beer. Asking for support for a difficult practice is a beautiful idea. Complaining about a choice of what to abstain from is just complaining. It’s not considered something better because the complainer is engaging in a spiritual practice.
Unfortunately, while the attention Lent gets is a great thing and can lead to powerful change for people who truly devote themselves to it for the duration, a lot of what is going on feels like spiritual tourism. Someone decides they want to see what Lent is like and they pop in, only they have no guide, just an assumption about what is going on based on what they’ve heard friends say. Maybe they don’t even know why they picked that destination. Maybe they chose it because it would make them look good, sort of like when one travels to another country to do good deeds for the “less fortunate”. When practiced as “suffering for the sake of suffering” and then publicly complained about, Lent is turned into an ego exercise. It’s meant to get us past that, to get us closer to the true nature of who and what we are, which is not our egos.
Don’t get me wrong, I think most people have good intentions when deciding to do Lent. That said, if it’s just a short-term, New Year’s resolution in spiritual clothing, it’s not really Lent. This should be good news for people unnecessarily torturing themselves because they can get off the bus here and save themselves the next 39 days of pain (technically it’s 46 days this year, but you don’t have to abstain on Sundays).
For those who want to do something, but don’t want to give anything up, I’ve seen some lovely, innovative ideas that focus on giving to others. One friend posted the idea of surrendering “ungratitude” and making a daily list of three things for which you are grateful. It may not seem like much, but noticing the beauty of your life can completely shift the way you interact with people around you for the better. Plus, it helped Matthew McConaughey win an Oscar. So there’s that. Another friend shared a 40-act generosity challenge. Giving to charity or acts of service is indeed a part of the practice, so it’s all good.
If you choose to observe Lent this year, I hope you will do so with a reverence for what the practice is and a respect for those who choose to observe as well. It is a quiet practice and a time of inner reflection and growth. It’s not a feet-stomping, teeth-gnashing, yell-at-the-top-of-your-lungs-to-anyone-can-hear-about-how-bad-it-sucks kind of time. Save that for when your kids have taken to doing Peep wars in the microwave and you’re pretty sure you’ll never be able to get that cooked marshmallow off no matter what nasty a chemical you use.
With love and respect,
*Nobody, really, Likes You. A Guide to Insouciance. By Lorna Tollison and M. Saylor Billings. It’s a hilarious parody wherein a fictional character gives advice to rejected reality stars. Yet, it’s got some excellent and very wise life advice.