A friend of mine was startled last week when I told her that Lent was never really acknowledged in the fundamentalist Christian denomination of my upbringing. She remarked: "But Lent is all about guilt! Wouldn't they have loved it" To which I replied: "Well, not exactly, because if they set aside only a season for guilt, that would imply that the rest of the year, you needn't feel quite so guilty, and that just wouldn't do!" We had a good laugh about that, but it also got me thinking.
It wasn't until a few years after I left the fundamentalist tradition that I was introduced to the "culture" of Lent, and the idea of giving things up for Lent. Growing up in a culture where self-abnegation is a daily exercise, I decided that the only things left to give up during Lent were the one or two things left in my life that - secretly of course - did give me great joy. So, I gave up seeing good friends. I gave up going out into nature and enjoying creation. I gave up painting and writing and all manner of creative pursuits.
It makes me sad to look back on the time in my life when I really thought that I was honouring God and getting closer to God by giving up God's gifts to me. In a sense, I was saying "To make YOU happy, God, I will give you back these gifts you gave me and refuse to allow myself to enjoy them." I now imagine that God's shoulders drooped and God sighed sadly at that fervent prayer.
In an effort to continue to recover from my upbringing, for many years I have had to give up Lent for Lent. I have had to force myself not to deny myself, but to fully engage in and enjoy things in my life, at a time when all around me, very "spiritual people" were busy giving up things that they love.
It's hard for me. It makes me feel selfish. It makes me feel less spiritual in comparison. It's hard to explain to people that during Lent, I make it a discipline to nudge myself towards fully enjoying the Life God has given me. After all, where do I see Christ more than in the face of a caring friend Where do I experience the Wonder of God more fully than in the wonder of creation When do I experience God's love for me in granting me skills than when I am exercising my creativity?
It's been a little over 10 years since I left the church of my growing-up years. It has been a long and difficult struggle to accept myself as God's beloved child, and to realize the joy that God wants me to experience in this life. That is why I love the Anglican Ash Wednesday liturgy. The service encourages us "to turn from wickedness and LIVE" [capitalization mine]. I love that the service asks us to "observe a Holy Lent". I sometimes cringe when I read the list of ways to do so that follows.
However, I am starting to teach myself that when I see "self-denial" in that list, for me, it doesn't mean pitching everything out the window that gives me joy. For me, it often means choosing not to wallow in guilt, but to recognize it, confess it, and then turn to other items on the list, such as prayer and giving to those in need.
In the New Zealand Ash Wednesday service, when ashes are administered, the priest has the option of saying "God longs for you to be whole". For the first time in many years, this year I have decided to give something up for Lent. But I know I need to be careful. I need to remember that more than self-denial, what God really wants for me and for all of us, is for us to be whole.
'Self-denial' ... doesn't mean pitching everything out the window that gives me joy. It means choosing not to wallow in guilt, but to recognize it, confess it, and then turn to other items on the list, such as prayer and giving to those in need.