Friday, February 15, 2008

Lent, Part I: Addition or Subtraction?

There's a Simpson's episode in which a bored Lisa and Bart look to Marge for help. Suggesting board games, she offers several choices: "Citizenship," "The Energy Shortage Game," "Hippo in the House," and "The Game of Lent," which clearly looks like a parody of the old "Game of Life" that so many of us played as kids. Remember the little cars with pink and blue pins to represent one's spouse and offspring? Although Bart and Lisa turn down the offer, one suspects that in the warped minds of Simpson's writers, "The Game of Lent" would have included spaces like, "Yield to Temptation: Move back three spaces and say the Lord's Prayer five times."

Growing up as a Southern Baptist I never heard of Lent - or Advent, Maundy Thursday, and Epiphany, for that matter. Those were days observed by Catholics, whom, I recall, were always regarded with implied suspicion, as if they performed macabre rituals involving the "body and blood of Christ" behind their closed doors. Who could have imagined the dark arts imputed to the "holy mysteries" of transubstantiation or the rosary?! So even after I became an Episcopalian in my thirties, the practice of Lent still seemed alien, even if the concept of penitential contemplation proved obvious. It's rather like Advent on "downers" - a time of "preparation," but without the carols, wreaths, candles and parties. Those sentiments are ostensibly eaten away in an orgy of pancake suppers and church social hall "Mardi Gras" dinners on Shrove Tuesday.

Around Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday this year I tried to listen in on conversations that might reveal people's thoughts on the coming season. And from bus and subway to bodega and restaurant, it was interesting to hear how some will observe the Lenten season. For example, there were the traditional declarations of "I'm giving up x or y for Lent," with x and y most often being chocolate, alcohol, red meat, TV, and cigarettes. On Ash Wednesday I even overheard one restaurant patron declare while waiting in line: "I'm going to try and be nicer to people during Lent." (Thought: If you're using Lent to be a "nicer" person, you've got bigger issues than one can solve in a 40-day period. Moreover, one is compelled to wonder if this person is normally mean-spirited. Perhaps she's thinking, "Ok, as soon as that first Easter brunch bloody mary is drained, all bets are off; I'm going back to my bitchy self.")

A few years ago I heard a Lenten sermon by an Episcopal priest who addressed this practice of yearly denial. Commenting on the silliness of so many Lenten promises to abstain from, deny, or strip away these little physical elements of our daily lives, he noted that too many Christians over-ritualize and over-simplify the practice of Lenten disciplines, thus missing the point entirely. To me they seem akin to New Year's Resolution do-overs, made manageable by their finite scale. In the end, our Rector concluded his sermon by recommending the more active option of "taking on" something new that might prove enriching to ourselves and others. His examples included volunteering for community service organizations (like a soup kitchen, food pantry, or homeless shelter), committing oneself to new worship opportunities (for example, attending morning or evening prayer services, or engaging one's family in the nightly service of Compline, which is a lovely service in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer). These represented only the most obvious possibilities. Of a decidedly academic bent, I decided to take the scholarly route and read on matters spiritual. He urged us to be creative. And although my theology has expanded beyond the narrow confines of Christian dogmatism, being inclusive of several lexicons of faith at present, I've continued this Lenten practice adopted when I lived in Tennessee. Right now, for example, I'm reading Kathleen Norris's Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. (Photo: RC Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, Lexington Ave.)

To be continued

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have been enjoying your blog which I stumbled on through either Nina's or Misty's blog. If you have a chance you must read Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris.