Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Freedom of Lent

When I was a little girl, Lent (the six and a half weeks before Easter Sunday) meant giving up dessert for weeks at a time, with only a reprieve on Sundays. Then we had a huge load of chocolate on Easter morning. My mother was raised Catholic and I know she had switched to Protestantism by that time, but I suppose some things held on. I don't think I really understood the whole thing very well, I just resented not getting cookies. Later in my childhood my mom seemed to give up on the whole thing and my sister and I were not about to volunteer to give things up. So I stopped giving up anything for Lent.

In college I had friends who would give up chocolate for Lent. I remember thinking at the time that chocolate would not be a big deal for me (unlike now, I'm sorry to say) but that I should probably give up salt or something I really liked. I think I actually did try once to give up salt, lasted about  6 hours, and gave it up as a bad idea.

Somewhere in my early twenties I engaged much more seriously with my faith. I became more regular in my church attendance, started attending study groups, read quite a few books and in general really dug into what I believed and how I wanted to live my life. Around that time I revived the practice of giving something up for Lent, but under the guidance of my church I started thinking beyond food. What could I give up that was impeding my spiritual life? What could I sacrifice that would really be a sacrifice for me? At various times I chose to give up unnecessary spending, but my most frequent Lenten sacrifice became fiction reading.

Admittedly this is an odd choice, but you have to understand that I read a lot. I mean, really a lot. Usually at least 100 books per year, and probably about 80 of them are fiction. I value reading, and I know that I have learned a tremendous amount even through fiction reading. I believe there is nothing wrong with reading and many, many things right with the habit.

But.

I am a person who gets lost in a book to the exclusion of everything else. When I'm sucked into a novel it's hard to go to bed on time, hard to pay attention to my family, hard to make myself go to work, hard to exercise, hard to accomplish anything else at all until I finish that story. It's really a problem when the story extends over eight to ten books. I can lose whole weeks at a time to reading. Even when I force myself to put the book down I'm often only half present in what I'm doing. The other half of my brain is mulling over my story and impatient to pick the book up again. Particularly when I am stressed or unhappy, fiction reading becomes my escape but also my addiction. Clearly at times reading is too much of a good thing for me. So I've developed a Lenten discipline of fasting from fiction in order to interrupt that cycle. I don't commit to it every year, as my own spiritual tide ebbs and flows, but when I do it helps for that time.

This year I'm starting to think about Lent a little differently. Instead of just a practice of giving something up (in solidarity with suffering, to release things that impede spiritual growth) I'm wondering what freedom I can find in this period of time. In the discipline of not engaging my usual patterns of behavior, can I find the freedom of new choices? In the practice of being out of my comfort zone, can I find new joy and peace? Can I turn to G-D for comfort, can I give my family my attention, can I be fully present in my own life? One of the paradoxes I am slowly coming to understand is that we need structure to be truly free. In the structure of Lent this year, I am hoping to find the freedom of new ways of being.

Also check out Rachel Held Evans 40 Ideas for Lent 2014