Four years ago, I spent Shrove Tuesday eating my weight in sausage patties and golden pancakes. Then I became a vegetarian for Lent.
My first vegetarian Ash Wednesday was met with nausea and a keen sense of the 40 days until Easter breakfast casseroles. Lent was about joining Jesus in the wilderness, but it was also about surviving a season sans cheeseburgers.
During that trial, my spiritual sacrifice was connected to larger intention. I’d taken the Lenten vegetarianism pledge as an indication of commitment to my forthcoming marriage with Fred, a devout Hindu who formerly lived as a monk and had been a vegetarian for over a decade.
A few months after we were matched on eHarmony in December 2008, Fred asked me about Lent’s purpose. I stumbled to offer even a vague answer. Why do Christians subject themselves to 40 days of repentance, sacrifice, and contemplation?
I was raised in the Baptist Church, which historically places no emphasis on observing Lent. Many 40-day desert journeys came and went before I noticed. But Fred’s commitment to Hindu spiritual disciplines was palpable—and it sharpened my interest in Christianity’s rhythms.
Had I not begun dating a devout Hindu, I may never have sought answers about the significance of Jesus’ time apart.
Once we were married, my newfound interest in Lent translated well in our Christian-Hindu interfaith household. Fred’s Hindu tradition of Gaudiya Vaishnavism observes a similar time of self-denial for the sake of meditating on God. Gaura-Purnima falls on the full moon just before the spring equinox, typically coinciding with Lent. This holy day celebrates the birth of Sri Caitanya Mahabrabhu, a manifestation of God who teaches us to love God by his example. Like Lent, Gaura-Purnima urges us reflect on what it means to follow God incarnate.
Our simultaneous observance of Lent and Gaura-Purnima could have erupted in a my-faith-versus-your-faith battle. Instead, it melded into a collaborative effort of going deeper with God. Fred’s Hindu practices of chanting prayers, fasting, vegetarianism, limiting consumption, and rigorous scripture study made me more attuned to Jesus’ austerity in the wilderness. Rather than hampering my Lenten path, our interfaith marriage propelled me into a more sincere walk with Christ.
Early in our marriage, Fred and I decided to practice Lent together. In addition to his annual celebration of Gaura-Purnima, Fred is always ready for what the wilderness season has to offer him: an opportunity to be intentionally devoted to God. Though we practice two very different religions, we walk the 40 days side by side, adding disciplines like Internet abstinence and morning prayer. We lean in to a more spiritual routine, holding each other accountable.
What might it mean for all of us to open ourselves to learning more about one another’s religious practices? When we yoke ourselves with people who practice faithfully and believe something different from us, we encounter wonderings about our own journeys that may not have found us in the isolation of our worshiping communities. Fred has embraced the sacred space Lent offers him, and I’m grateful for his initial inquiry that led me to the season in this first place. In our discernment over the tenets of our faiths, we’ve drawn closer to God.
The Challenge of an Interfaith Marriage
It doesn’t take much Googling, or even casual conversation with a complete stranger, to uncover advice against blended families. Even ’Til Faith Do Us Part author Naomi Schaefer Riley—a willing participant in the interfaith marriage movement (she’s Jewish, her husband is a former Jehovah’s Witness)—offers cautionary tales on the possible perils of mixed-faith families. Pastors and rabbis add to the cacophony of concern, warning against divided households and the confused religious lives of future children.
But 45 percent of us somehow manage to get to the altar with someone of a different tradition. For interfaith families, the world is watching. As the number of interfaith partners increases each decade, some skeptics still thrust “unequally yoked” arguments from the sidelines while interfaith couples live out comparative religion each day.
It’s not an easy path, but pluralistic marriages are gradually becoming more acceptable. Couples like us find ways to harmonize; they relish the similarities and respect the differences. They observe one another’s holy days, worship, pray, and read scripture together.
During Lent, Fred and I dig in together. We struggle. We appreciate the contrasts. The result is surprising: our individual faith journeys are strengthened by our spiritual differences. We are stronger together, because it’s not so much about having the same faith as it is about having deep faith.
Visit the Patheos Book Club on Dana Trent’s new book, Saffron Cross, here.
J. Dana Trent is an ordained minister in the Baptist tradition and author of Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk from Fresh Air Books, an imprint of Upper Room Books. Dana blogs at jdanatrent.com, tweets @jdanatrent, and spends too much time on Facebook.