I worked as a teller for a short while after I graduated from PCC, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had moved away from the rural Southern town I’d grown up in and was living in an unfamiliar area where most of the people I met– if they were religious– usually identified as Catholic. It was strange for me, since I was used to everyone being Baptist even if they weren’t fundamentalists.
My first Ash Wednesday there was especially confusing. I was working the drive-through that day and after the twenty-fifth person came through with a gray smudge on their forehead, I finally asked someone what it was.
She stared at me, her mouth open. “I thought you said you were a Christian?”
I had no idea what that had to do with foreheads and gray smudges. I frowned. “I am.”
She laughed. “It’s Ash Wednesday, Sam.”
More blank staring, this time from my end. “What’s ‘Ash Wednesday’?”
She just shook her head and walked back to her office, laughing. When I got home from work that day and finally googled it, I realized that it was the first day of Lent. The interesting thing to me was that I’d been observing Lent for five years at that point and had somehow missed that Lent began on Ash Wednesday. I also found it amusing that Mardi Gras was also connected to Lent, which I had not known.
I started observing Lent my first year at PCC with a group of friends– together we made a pact to give up soda. I drank nothing but water those forty days, and when I noticed that I felt better without the stuff I gave it up almost totally– now I drink nothing but root beer and ginger ale on rare occasions. For the four and a half years I spent in college, I drank nothing but water.
The next year it was sugar– and that was much harder. No deserts, no sweeteners, no sugary cereals . . . after the first week, we agreed that we wouldn’t keep it through Sunday just so that we could have one gigantic slice of chocolate-chip-encrusted cake to get us through the week.
After that it was caffeine, then carbs, and that year I was working at the bank it was coffee. I had started thinking of Lent as my once-a-year diet, or purge, or I guess the popular term now would be “cleanse.” But that year, I finally looked into what Lent actually was and realized that what I had been doing was . . . just a little ridiculous. I didn’t understand the deep meaning, the tradition, the calling of Lent.
The only context I had to observe Lent was inside my fundamentalist box, and the way I was observing this ancient practice clicked right in alongside the self-flagellation of fundamentalism. I observed Lent because I believed that aestheticism was the point of Lent and Christianity. I didn’t yet love the Incarnation and the imago dei, I hadn’t yet learned to appreciate an embodied faith and the gift of life and beauty.
The next year for Lent, with my perspective starting the monumental shift that continues through today, and after several conversations with people from rich Protestant and Catholic traditions, I decided to give up facebook. I wanted to spend the scattered minutes throughout my day experiencing those moments instead of numbing or distracting myself with a news feed. The next year I gave up the internet totally. Last year, it was reading the comment section.
But this year . . . this year I’m not observing Lent.
Lent has become an important part of my faith practice, especially as I have grown to appreciate its history and what its meant to me over the years. I’ve come to look forward to these forty days. I’ll probably be back to observing Lent next year, and my goal is to follow a more traditional path, especially since I’m living in a Catholic area again. I thought about it this year, but, ultimately I realized that I need to examine why. There are still too many fundamentalist strings tied to me, too many fundamentalist shadows in my life I need to shine a light on, too many times when crawling back inside a fundamentalist cage is my automatic response.
I need to not observe Lent this year, partly just to prove that I can. The guilt is still to close, the shame still too heavy. Fear has been pushed deep into my soul– fear of failing, fear of not being enough. Not holy enough. Not spiritual enough. Not righteous enough. Not godly enough.
Lent has become a way for me to affirm that I am “enough.” Lent has become a way for me to avoid guilt, and shame, and fear. Lent has become a litmus test– If I can just get to the end of these forty days and feel that I’ve “accomplished” being a Christian in some way, then maybe some of the fear in my soul will dissipate.
That is how the fundamentalist inside of me uses Lent, and I want to banish that part of me. I want to wake up on Easter morning and simply be enough for no other reason than I am. I don’t need to “give something up,” to push myself into making a commitment to self-sacrifice just to feel like I’m worthy of being a Christian. I don’t have to prove anything– not to myself, not to God.