Thirty years ago my first spiritual director, a Catholic lay woman, asked me: “What are your disciplines for Lent?”
“Oh, I think I’m gonna give up watching ‘Star Trek’,” I told her. “I watch it every Monday evening with my roommates. It’s kinda a ritual for us but I think it will be good for me to give it up.”
She studied me for a several seconds then sharply responded: “If you do that you will miss the whole purpose of Lent. You will end up with more pride–you will be proud of yourself rather than seeking transformation.”
I was shocked at her response. I was shocked by her rebuke as she was a gentle, humorous woman. I also was shocked by her statement about Lent–I thought the whole purpose of Lent was to give something up. I’d always heard about people giving up chocolate for Lent or red meat or television watching, so I figured I was on the right track with the whole Lent thing. Lent was a new concept for me. In the church tradition I grew up in we never talked about Lent. We talked about Good Friday and of course, we celebrated Easter, but never Ash Wednesday or Lent, or even a period of preparation for Easter, the grandest day of the year.
The word “Lent” comes from Old English, meaning “spring” or “lengthen” as in the lengthening of the days. This is not the image of a spring of pleasant warmth but an image of change–of transformation, of conversion. In the lengthening brightness from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday–our Lenten spring–we are called to offer our brokenness to God. In offering our own brokenness we can then offer the world’s brokenness to God.
Lent spring is 40 days (excluding Sundays), echoing the 40 days of temptation Jesus experienced. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week. During these weeks before Easter, the church enters into a time of reflection, repentance, prayer and fasting, and renewal. Early in the history of the Christian church, new converts were baptized on the Saturday just before Easter Sunday. Prior to baptism, these new converts participated in an intensive spiritual formation which included instruction, mentoring, practice in spiritual disciplines, and the development of the disciplines or habits of service, justice, charity and witness. Also at this time, previously baptized persons reflected deeply on their own conversion and ongoing transformation. At the Saturday Easter vigil people renewed their baptismal commitments along with the new converts who were baptized for the first time. Everyone together participated in a festive communion celebration to welcome the arrival of Easter.
As Lent begins again, I ask myself these same questions: what in me needs transforming? What transforming does God wish to do in me? This year, I am praying for an open heart to trust God more deeply, to believe that God is all I need. It is essential for me to open my heart to ask deeper questions of God and of the world around me and to keep my heart open to live into God’s answers.
What are your disciplines for Lent?