To Lent or not to Lent? ‘With whom’ is the question.
I was raised Southern Baptist, and growing up we did not observe Lent. In some ways, probably mainly because I had never participated, it sounded exotic: 40 days of personal preparation and mysterious transformation of some sort before getting to celebrate Easter, a sober commitment required before sidling up to salvation. I came from a tradition of front-yard pictures in fluffy Easter dresses, a bunny that left elaborate baskets, and a penchant for exclaiming “He is risen!” sans sharing the suffering, so this extended sacrificial Lent thing sounded serious. On the other hand, when I heard what people were actually doing — what they were “giving up” for Lent: chocolate, sodas, a favorite food or candy — it sounded equally like it could have been a trendy diet. Or maybe just something to commiserate over. I never really knew what to make of it. Should I have felt guilty or grateful that I was not Lent-ing? I felt some of both.
Later on I moved to New York City, visited many churches, traveled a beautifully winding spiritual path. It was not until years later when I went to seminary that I again encountered Lenten observance. Some of my friends and colleagues who were Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox gracefully exemplified the deeper significance of Lent, the spiritual discipline of reflecting deeply on the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Fasting and penitence took a fluid yet frank form related to reviewing of past actions, searching of the heart, purging of deadness in the spirit, renewing of convictions, and asking questions of the greater community about unity, justice, and shouldering one another’s burdens. They contemplated sacrifice, self-denial and service without the distraction of jonesing for gummy bears. I perked up.
When I began my pastoral internship at Park Avenue Christian Church, I discovered that many in the Disciples of Christ denomination also engaged in Lent. The tradition there did not demand undue attention; outwardly simple yet inwardly complex, it was less about public showings and more about internal knowings. I discovered the freedom of a diverse array of practices that held special meaning for each member of the congregation who participated. Maybe someone focused on one primary principle of Jesus’ ministry and experimented with carrying it out in various forms throughout the time period. Maybe a person did not give up something they craved but rather added something they craved, like spending more time with his children on weekday evenings. Maybe another tried something new, like waking up early to spend quiet time attempting to listen to God instead of talking at God about what she was worried about. This was getting interesting.
Then a friend of mine suggested that a group of us female seminarians start a Lenten prayer group. We would share our personal journeys through those 40 days, praying for and supporting one another through a season of contemplation to Easter. We set up a Google group and planned to do it mostly virtually because of our busy schedules. It made me a little nervous. I was not so sure how much of my end of the bargain I’d be able to keep up while trying to work, write a thesis, fulfill my ordination requirements, graduate from my Master of Divinity program, interview for new jobs, find a new apartment in the city, and make a series of difficult decisions and personal transitions that were occurring at the time. I couldn’t see participating as an asset mainly because I still had a feeling of malaise about Lent practice from all those years of witnessing it vicariously. I couldn’t help but recall hearing people around me speak about it as a trivial burden, an annual downer, something to “get through.” It was frozen in time as several weeks of complaint about constant discomfort of the first-world kind.
But accepting the invitation to join with women in spiritual practice changed everything, and instead of being a burden, the observance brought life. The Lenten Sisters turned old ideas of Lent on their heads and turned it around for me personally, too. Lent was better than candy, and actually provided the energy and sustenance I needed to push through such a challenging, pivotal point in my life. Intentionally investing in the lives of other women brought a rich joy and a mystic appreciation of true beauty; I began to sense the Femmevangelical in my faith.
We were a motley crew, extremely diverse in relation to our past careers and future dreams, our reasons for being in seminary, our families, upbringings, faith traditions and personal experiences. Different races, different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, different origins, different journeys and different end points we were all looking to make it to, left no threat of falling into the mainstream mundane or the pat answers. A streetwise former cop, a midwestern Jung junkie, an urban justice poet, a creative worship connoisseur, a deeply insightful and spiritual neuroscience fan. There were actresses and corporate execs, fire-hearted redheads and cool-headed bookworms, frilly feminists and angry doubters, playwrights and planet savers, chaplains who sat quietly at deathbeds and pulpit pounders who witnessed to the life-force. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. And there were only 6 of us.
Over the 40 days we ended up telling each other surprisingly personal things, despite some of us being relative strangers apart from our connection as fellow students. We talked about our pasts, abuses, painful experiences, haunting memories, bad choices, big mistakes and how they had made us who we are, had created earnest seekers. We talked about the struggles women have with warped self-perceptions, the evil plague of self-limitation, and the stealthily instilled mis-belief that we are not worthy of success, fulfillment, promotions, praise. We dissected the lies about the virtues of infinite patience, constant self-sacrifice and the false contentment derived from “appreciating the rights you do have.” We learned so much from one another by traveling through 40 days of reflection, prayer, questioning, struggle, and the scary “spring cleaning” of deep inner work that allows one to truly pursue the devastating meaning of Jesus’s actual life and death in a very real, guttural, applicable sense. We cried together, empowered each other, railed against the machine and intervened for one another. We got our hands dirty with each other. We redefined holiness. Individually we were all wild women who believed enough to take risks, but together, we were unstoppable. For Lent, I gave up fear.
The term “repent” does not exactly mean what we are often taught in many traditions, where it is used to admonish unpopular behavior or to aggressively convince someone that they have done wrong and therefore must beg for mercy and forgiveness. But in a much more life-affirming, truth-seeking, dignity-encouraging vein, the Greek metanoia implies an authentic change of perception, a self-sanctioned change of heart following a meaningful event, the act of changing one’s own mind to allow for or accept the discovery of a new reality. I am currently in my third season with the amazing Lenten Sisters, and I have repented of never having Lented. I mean the subversive, sorrowful, soaring, searing real Lent. The Lent that involves giving up self-protecting boundaries and taking on the response-ability of community. All you need is a few women who are willing to go there with you, an open heart, and a craving.