As a newcomer to the liturgical church year (as of Advent 2014), I’ve been experiencing each season with an anticipation for God that, I’ll confess, I haven’t known since I became a new Christian fifteen years ago. My conversion from low church to high church tradition has been a long process and will be for another essay, but, given this new forty-day season of Darkness, I thought I might explore a newcomer’s first experience with Lent. I wasn’t sure at first whether publicizing my experiences would be a good idea (I am mindful of Jesus’s decree to not fast and pray in public), but a 7 p.m., Ash Wednesday homily convinced me otherwise. The priest suggested exactly what I was worried about: You may not have come to the 7 a.m. service for the ashes, he said, because you didn’t want to walk around all day with the cross of ashes splayed across your forehead, worried that you’d be displaying your piety for everyone to see so that you would be praised for it. What matters is your internal motivation, he said.
I’m not sure what my motivations are, but maybe that will become clear by the time Easter rolls around.
I skipped the 7 a.m. service in favor of the evening. Now I wish I hadn’t. The priest assuaged my fears of prideful public piety by saying that what changes us during Lent comes from both outward and inward influences. The outward influences, like displaying the ashes on our foreheads, tangibly remind us that we are dust and to dust we will return, all of us. And over the next forty days, actually doing what we don’t want to do, when our hearts are not in it, shapes the inner life just as much as our inner intentions shape our outward actions. So, when you don’t want to fast for the day, do it anyway, and the act of doing so will begin to transform you. The act of wearing the ashes is a visible reminder that you really are dust.
That is what has led me to write this Lenten series, which will simply be brief, mostly weekly-ish reflections of my experiences of Lent and fasting as a newcomer to recognition of the church year.
A week or so before Lent, I decided I would fast for twenty-four hours on Ash Wednesday, on each Friday of the season and then again on Good Friday. In between, I decided to take on vegetarianism and fast from meat. I’ve noticed a growing hunger inside me that continues to consume (not just food, but all manner of desires) simply because whatever it is that I’m consuming is available to me without much barrier. I mostly consume because I can; much of my consumption has nothing to do with need but desire. Nothing, really, I want to consume is off limits to me, if for no other reason than that I live in one of the wealthiest nations in human history. To be sure, I give little thought to whether what I consume is necessary in that moment. It makes me less mindful of those who labor around the world to fulfill my desires of the moment. My mindless consumption costs someone somewhere something. I want to be aware of who that someone is, where they are, and what their cost is for my desire, even if I never know specifics.
Some might say I simply feel guilty for my consumption. Rather, it seems to me that guilt is largely a fleeting, selfish emotion that focuses one’s attention on self rather than looking to the well being of the other. Guilt feeds impression management rather than mindfulness. Frankly, I don’t really want to fast. My belly likes being full. But I suspect I do want to be mindful. Maybe. I hope that’s true. I’ll know more by Easter, I think.
In the “Litany of Penitence” in the Book of Common Prayer, we repent “for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty.”
Even when I don’t want to, I’m mindful of my own culpability in causing human need and suffering. I’m inherently lazy in both my personal and spiritual life and doing this deed, this mindful fasting, and writing about my impressions of it will likely ensure I actually do it. I do admit I like to manage people’s impressions of me, too. But it’s also true that it’s harder to back out of a commitment when others know about it.
That said, here is my first Lenten reflection:
So far, fasting has made me realize what I’ve made important in my life, so much so that my body cries (a grumpy kind of hunger) out in favor of my disordered desires. My body WANTS. And it WANTS MORE. It has showed me what I’ve been indifferent toward as I’ve been attending to and feeding my disordered desires.