Because I grew up Catholic, giving up variations of chocolate, bread, and sweets throughout my youth during Lent, Ash Wednesday steps into my vision with screaming billboards and flashing neon lights every year, in spite of the fact that I haven’t attended a mass of any sort for years. Traditionally and ritually, Lenten fasts offer the chance to practice self-denial. More importantly, in the journey of figuring out how to live in and with that self-denial, I think Lenten sacrifice–even, say, the fairly low-hanging-fruit, mundane sacrifice of giving up sugar–provides a chance to reach towards grace.
Although I’m not religious anymore, I think a lot about grace. The sense I got of grace in CCD was that grace was sorta like the Holy Spirit in that it provided a respite from ignorance but also, kinda, a divine moment of blessing. In this way grace was about a sort of enlightenment that came not because you studied hard, but because you opened up to whatever lay beyond knowledge–something bigger than you and than what you could know.
The ritual of Lenten sacrifice moves me towards grace by forcing me have to think deeply about who I am, really, without the soothing aid of that thing I’m cutting away from my days. Let’s stick with the sugar example. It would not be untrue for me to say that my primary reward system is dessert. So if something difficult or complicated has been managed, I eat chocolate. And if something joyful or productive has been achieved, I eat ice cream. When Lent cordons off those rewards, I can no longer use my reward patterns to short circuit and take the place of thinking or feeling I might need to do.
But I also think that Lent offers many moments ripe for practicing forgiveness; I fall, I get back up, and I forgive myself. Outside of Lent, I still do a lot of falling and getting back up, but often I’m too busy and caught up in all of my rewards or comforts to forgive myself. I am hoping that Lenten practice, in offering a route to reflection, opens me up to grace. Grace allows me to acknowledge the smallness of me in the world. The smallness of me… well, that leads to forgiveness and also to a very healthy dose of humility.
This post already has grown much longer than I wanted it to be. I really just wanted to think through this particular Lent in this particular, complicated and challenging year. There is so much that I want to fight, and challenge, and change! in the world. I want to persist! and resist! and mobilize! But I don’t think I can do that without taking time to consider my smallness, and Lent will help me to do that.
I have decided to give something up. It’s something (not sugar or dessert) that will be challenging for me to live without. And I think that’s good. I want to make sure I have moments where I reach for it and then have to stop and think: about sacrifice, about recalibrating my daily rhythms, about considering my dependencies.
I have also decided to pull something closer toward me. I’ve been writing more in the past year, but it’s all work writing. So this Lent I want to play more with words and sounds and shapes and metaphors. I plan to write every day, mostly poems, with no expectation of achieving pretty or meaningful or worthwhile every time (or, really, any of the times). I want to fail a lot, but in failing, get back up and develop new rhythms and imaginings.
You might be asking-why so public? Why put this on a blog? Mainly because accountability to “the world” (or, you know, the three readers who stumble across the blog) helps me. But also because I think we all need to see failure more often. We need to remember that it will take a lot of falling, and a lot of stumbling, as we try to make the world a more perfect place.