Every spring, our church invites us “to the observation of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP p. 265).
What an invitation! As tempting as fasting and self-denial sound, I think I may be busy for the next forty days! Gosh darn it, too, I was really looking forward to Lent!
Okay, maybe Lent is not that kind of invitation. But invite is the right word: Lent is something that we decide to do (or not to do), or something that we just let slide. As much as our will is shaped by God and distorted by sin, and as much as God supports us in our discipline and discipleship, participating in Lent is a decision.
The caricature of Lent is puritanical and sort of masochistic: “What are you giving up this year?” A sort of spiritual endurance race, not unlike a strict diet: “Are you doing Atkins or Paleo or Weight Watchers? What is your goal weight?” (Not that we would ever be so gauche as to ask these questions directly). Something we do that makes us miserable in the short run, but that is good for us in the long run – or until we give up on it in a few weeks.
But what does real spiritual discipline look like? Not all of us are called to be nuns and monks, ascetics and mystics, right?
- Self-examination: As much as our culture is devoted to the selfie and the self-absorbed blog, true self-examination is much rarer and more challenging. How often do we truly study our own actions and thoughts with reference to the ethical and moral standards of scripture? How often do we review our own prayer life and our relationship with God? This discipline is truly the one that supports all the others, and is one too often skipped.
- Repentance: This word is related to but different from two other words: penitence and penance. Penitence is the feeling of sorrow or regret for past sins. Penance is a symbolic action we take to acknowledge our sins and our intention to repair the damage done by them (sometimes as a part of the sacrament of Confession). Repentance is the larger-scale turning of our whole life in a new direction, away from sin and toward God. Repentance is a process that never ends – our whole life is (or should be) repentance.
- Prayer: As Episcopalians, it is easy for us to think of prayer as words. Usually words read from a book or memorized, often said in unison or by the priest. But prayer is placing ourselves in an attitude of openness and conversation with God, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Words may help get us started, but they can also get in the way.
- Fasting: Fasting for health reasons has recently become fashionable, but fasting as a spiritual discipline may seem ancient and exotic – the province of those ascetics and mystics, but not for people like us. But as our worldly culture has become more and more focused on consumption, fasting is even more powerful and more necessary. Fasting is not just about food (although many of us have relationships with food that could stand some self-examination and repentance), but about being mindful and intentional about what we consume and use: food, energy, entertainment, time, attention. And fasting is not just about giving up junk food or bad habits: S. Lewis points out that it is easier to make an idol of something that is mostly good than from something that is entirely evil. One can imagine needing to take a fast from the Metropolitan Opera, or from participation in national politics, or perhaps even from certain relationships, if they are taking the central place in one’s life that rightly belongs to God.
- Self-denial: Isn’t this the same as fasting? Not really. Our culture teaches us that the self is the highest priority: self-improvement, self-esteem, self-confidence. Self-denial is the rejection of that orientation. We are not self-made; we are not self-sufficient or self-directed. Our very existence and the existence of the universe depends entirely on the gracious will of God. Even the idea that we have a self is a gift. We are created and have our purpose as children of God, in relationship with God. Because we have free will does not mean that we are free-agents.
I have a feeling that this exposition may have made an Invitation to a Holy Lent more daunting rather than less: it would be a lot easier to think about giving up Twinkies for six weeks than to dive into the wholesale examination of our souls, our selves, our relationships to God and to the rest of creation.
But no one said that Lent was going to be easy.