I was raised Catholic and still consider Catholicism to be my faith of choice even though I don’t regularly attend church and disagree with the Holy See on just about every political and social issue. (But Pope Francis seems like he’d be really fun to hang out with on a road trip, doesn’t he?) Every year around this time someone will ask me what I’m giving up for Lent.
My reply: “Nothing. If I did I’d be a hypocrite.”
I don’t really observe any other holy days so why start now? On the other hand it would fall in line with the stereotype of the “cafeteria Catholic”—picking and choosing what I want. Praying to St. Anthony when I lose stuff? Yes. Going to Easter Mass just to hear the part where the priest goes “Do you reject Satan and all his works?” so I can pretend I’m Michael Corleone at the end of “Godfather I” when his nephew is being baptized while his enemies are being murdered? A resounding YES. The harder, more polarized, and antiquated stuff? Not so much. I don’t even want to go there on this blog.
I’ve noticed that Lent has started to lose its reverence as a time of inward reflection and spiritual preparation and has instead become a quick fix diet fad for the masses. Just this morning I overheard a woman at work say, “I’m not Catholic but I could give up ice cream for a while.” Then just stop eating the f*cking ice cream! That’s not what Lent is about! Dare I say Lent has become trendy. These days most of the people I hear talking about giving up something for Lent have never known the discomfort of a blessing of holy oil gooping up their bangs on their already oily adolescent forehead during Confirmation or have had many a sticky, styrofoam-y Host get stuck to the roof of their mouths and they don’t have anything to wash it down (because who drinks the shared goblet of Communion wine / congregant saliva? gross!) so that they have to do that weird thing with their tongue that makes them look like a cat hacking up a hairball…i.e., not Catholics. Maybe I should start observing Hanukkah. I hear you get presents for eight days. Plus I love candles.
If you want to observe Lent whether you’re Catholic or not, fine, do it. I don’t care and wish we’d all keep our religions to ourselves anyway. Maybe you’ll get something positive out of it. People like having a way to keep tabs on themselves and compete with themselves in a healthy way. Sometimes it helps to have an outside force whether it’s a FitBit or the suffering of Christ to hold ourselves accountable for our behavior. But why do you have to give up something to attain the inner peace, love, and spiritual growth that you are (hopefully??) seeking during this time? What if you make a change or try something new? What if you gain instead of give up?
The most fruitful observation of Lent happened when I was around thirteen. I was an unhappy child. I was probably suffering the early stages of clinical depression, but at that time I was just labeled as “moody,” which made me feel oh-so-much better. It was really easy to talk myself down into a darker and darker state of mind. As the law of attraction teaches us, like attracts like. The sadder I was the more sadness I attracted to me….so when Lent started I decided to cut the crap for a while and smile every day. Just smile. Not a big dumb grin. Just smile.
And you know what? I felt much better, even though I only kept it up for about a week. The simple act of smiling brightened my mood and attracted hope. The residual effects were short-lived since I was young and foolish hadn’t yet figured out that happiness comes from within, not from a thing or a person. But the lesson has stayed with me ever since then.
So today on Ash Wednesday, a day when Catholics typically fast and avoid meat, I had chicken for lunch at my favorite Lebanese restaurant. I have been dreaming of this chicken for weeks—spicy, juicy grilled chicken kebab dipped in the tastiest, oiliest hummus I’ve ever had. A coworker and I joined a former coworker to catch up, and we had a fantastic time. Our lunch was a celebration of our friendship, and that fellowship means a lot more to me than eating a greasy fried fish dinner with strangers in a parish hall. (I consider fish a meat anyway. Have you ever seen one cleaned and gutted alive? A fish is a lot more pissed off about becoming a meal than a potato is.)
Eating is not part of my spiritual practice and is therefore not significant to my growth other than showing love to my body “temple” by eating nutritious foods that keep me healthy and strong. I eat a vegetarian/vegan diet half the time anyway because I’m too lazy to cook meat. Giving up meat is not a meaningful gesture for me. Perhaps your connection to eating and spirituality is different for you, and that’s fine.
So how am I going to observe Lent and honor my personal faith and relationship with God? Jesus didn’t die so I could mope around and punish myself. Here’s what I’ll do:
Be happy. Love life. Show gratitude for all that I have been given. Do all the things that make me feel healthy, happy, and whole. Be nice to people. Give a homeless guy standing on the freeway access road five bucks before the cops run him off. Take care of myself and treasure the body that I have rather than bemoaning the flaws. Make my coworkers laugh. Help a little kid learn a new taekwondo form. Eat chocolate without feeling guilty, drink wine and enjoy the smooth flavors and heady buzz, go to the pool and rock out the butterfly stroke, laugh my head off at stupid movies with lots of naughty language, thank God for something hilarious and random that happened today.
Why stop when the forty days are over? I’ll be having too much fun.