Readers of this blog know that drawing upon a range of religious and spiritual traditions and blending them together is MY FAVOURITE. And today marks the beginning of the Christian observance of Lent, the forty days of fasting that lead up to Easter.
In the UK at least, Lent is observed by plenty of people who aren’t practicing Christians, but the concept tends to be reduced down to an opportunity to cut down on one’s consumption of chocolate. Which is fine. But Lent is a far richer spiritual practice than simple self-denial. So let’s explore what the principles of Lent can offer to all of us. I’ve posed some reflective questions which you might like to journal your responses to.
- 40 days to refocus
Lent is the period in the Christian calendar which reflects the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert according to scripture, and for practicing Christians it is a sombre and contemplative period which leads up to the joyous celebration of the story of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s very powerful that Lent provides a period of ‘stripping back’ to the basics each year before the defining event of the Christian story at Easter.
If you were to carve out a period of time to return to what truly matters to you, what would you want to focus this time upon?
- Repentance (ooh, that’s a heavy word!)
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which in many Christian traditions is a day of solemn reflection and repentance. Repentance means to turn from wrongdoing, and while it has specific meaning within the Christian tradition, it could offer us an opportunity to mindfully consider our lives, and the ways in which we are and are not living in alignment with our values and beliefs. It’s not about guilt or shame – it’s about exploring whether we can reorient day-to-day life towards the things we care about – be that kindness, social justice, pursuing joy – whatever matters most to you.
What one regular practice could you introduce to your life which would align with your values?
- Fasting – returning to what really matters
I’ve never really fasted so I can’t speak to the benefits (and the way it has been co-opted by diet culture has given it a different meaning), but I am intrigued by the notion of withdrawing things that either we enjoy or rely upon in order to return to what really matters. I don’t know about you, but the the things I turn towards to comfort or distract myself are most commonly food and watching re-runs of my favourite television shows. While during this time of extreme stress, I wouldn’t suggest any of us push ourselves to survive without our crutches, I also know that when I resist the temptation to distract myself with either food or television, I can be more present and this ultimately makes me feel happier and more in control. Fundamentally, I realise that I don’t need those things to be happy.
If you were to write a list of the 3-4 things which matter most to you, what would be on that list? How does that compare to the things you spend your time on?
While Lent is probably most closely associated with fasting, Lent has a strong prayer element to it. It is not about arbitrarily denying oneself life’s pleasures – it is about drawing closer to God, as Jesus did in the wilderness. It’s a strongly personal, mystical practice. Carving out more time for contemplation is always good, especially during this time when we are so often plugged into our devices, having our attention pulled every which way. More contemplation could look like meditation, journalling or going for walks without listening to our devices – anything which invites gentle reflection.
What might it look like to create more time for reflection and contemplation in your everyday life? What might the benefits be?
- Temptation (another big concept!)
In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted by the devil with all manner of worldly pleasures. But he stood firm because his priority was being alone with god. Temptation in this context is not about denial, it’s about knowing what is important to us and not letting other things have a strong grip upon us. The digital world we spend a lot of our time plugged into tugs at our attention, our time, and our finances – three of our most valuable resources. And we all know endlessly scrolling usually doesn’t uplift us or bring us joy.
What things tempt you to divert your attention and resources away from what matters most to you?
Whether it’s through exploring what truly matters to us, or the enjoyment that comes when the season of fasting ends and we return to a time of feasting, the principles of Lent can help us remember all the things we have, rather than what we don’t have. Feasting has no meaning or pleasure without the fast. So if you choose to fast something this Lent, remind yourself that fasting is a recognition of life’s abundance, not a meaningless self-denial.
What could Lent help you reflect upon? If now isn’t the right time to fast, how could you build the principles into your life in a way which reflects your way of thinking and your spiritual life?