My 12-year old daughter came home from school yesterday and said she wanted to give up something for Lent. Her friend is Catholic and my daughter liked the idea of giving something up until Easter. I wanted to encourage this in my daughter, both because I want her to explore other religious practices and because I think she could benefit from leaning how to self-discipline. So I agreed to do it with her. We talked about various things we might give up. I discouraged her from giving up any kind of food, given the complex relationship that girls start to develop with food at this age, so she came up with the idea of abstaining from YouTube videos, which are a big distraction for her. I chose chocolate (which I’ve been gorging on lately) and my wife chose to abstain from swearing. (I tried to switch with my wife, because hers seemed easier for me, but my daughter wouldn’t let me.)
The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of a 40-day fast. People often talk about “giving something up for Lent”, and I always understood it as a kind of like a more realistic version of New Year’s resolutions — a resolution with an end date. Some aspects of Catholicism are appealing to me in this way: Unlike the form of Christianity I grew up with, the Catholic church seems to expect people to fail — hence the institution of confession. We are just human after all. And this was how I (mis-)understood Lent: Make a resolution you know you can’t keep long term and we’ll let you break it after 40 days.
But I never participated in Lent, not just because I’m not Christian any longer, but because I don’t like the idea of abstinence or self-mortification. Part of the paradigm shift I experienced as I left Christianity behind and began identifying as Pagan was that I no longer divided my human desires into good and bad. Rather than trying to repress “bad” desires and abstain from “bad” behaviors, I now sought a way to integrate them all into my life in a healthy way. To paraphrase Hermann Hesse, I sought to treat all of my drives and so-called temptations with love and respect, so that they might reveal their meaning to me. If there was something in my life that I suspected of being unhealthy, instead of repressing it or trying to abstain from it (something I always failed at anyway), I tried to find a time and place to honor it. Everything in its time and place — a kind of variation on the idea of “everything in moderation”. For this reason, I had no use for fasting, which I saw as a form of repression, and so I saw no use for Lent.
But there’s another way to look at Lent, one that is appealing to me as a Pagan now. Rather than “giving something up”, Lent might be seen as a way of “making space”. This is how several Pagans I know incorporate a Lent fast into their practice. I’ve been gorging on chocolate for the last few months. But rather than giving it up because I think it’s unhealthy, I’m going to think about this fast as a way of making space to enjoy other foods. Similarly, my wife might think about giving up swearing as a way of making space for words of kindness. There are other things in my life which I don’t think are inherently bad, but that I suspect of taking up a lot of space in my life. And I wonder what might come into my life if I made some more space. And so I have decided to create some space in my life by removing both chocolate and maybe something else more personal and meaningful to me.
Writing about his own conception of Lent, fellow Patheos blogger, Carl Gregg, recalls the climax of the movie Chocolat, a sermon delivered by a village priest whose concept of Lent had been transformed by … well, eating chocolate. He says:
“I think that we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and whom we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create and whom we include.”
This is how I want to approach Lent: It’s not about what I have chosen to “give up”, but what comes into that space that I have created through the act of abstinence.
This seems like the perfect time of the year to do this — between the mid-winter thermistice (Imbolc) and the spring equinox. As Kathy Nance has written over at Agora:
“The seeds stirring in the belly of the Earth after Imbolc can sprout on their own—but how much better for them to work their way through soft earth, fertilized by leaves cast to the ground last autumn, empty spaces cleared for the first blooms. Soil that can be prepared by contemplation, by turning away from distractions, by seeking the light of the Divine. By becoming aware of the stirrings of my own Divine nature. And giving it room to burst forth into life.”
This “bursting forth” is reflected in the natural world around the time of the spring equinox (which is also used to mark the date of Easter). As Caroline Walker Bynum points out in Holy Feast and Holy Fast, “Fasting is in rhythm with the seasons, scarcity followed by abundance.”
So today, I will do a short ritual to mark the beginning of this fast. I think it is essential that we ritualize these moments, to make them sacred, and hence more powerful. I will smudge my forehead with ashes from our summer thermistice fire in the shape of an eight sided star, symbolizing the Wheel of the Year. And I will recite these lines:
With each breath, I create space around my heart.
With each silence, I create space around my mind.
With each “no”, I create space for a “yes”.
I create space for that which is beautiful to grow.
I create space for that which is good to come in and fill me up.
And I will invite my family to join me. I’ll let you know in 40 days how it went. (Next year, I think I will start this on the midwinter thermistice and end it on the spring equinox — a period of a little over 40 days).