Lent arrives this week with its themes of fasting, reflection, and penance. As I prepare, I am aware that this season requires countercultural ways of being – of living – that don’t come easily to most of us. We’ve become accustomed to our routines and privileges and feel comforted and entitled to having them in our lives.
Fasting is the opposite of the communal gluttony that football fans just enjoyed on Super Bowl Sunday. Reflection is difficult in the midst of the siren calls of email, Facebook, and biometric data from our portable devices that include laptops, cell phones, and wrist devices like iWatches and Fitbits. In an era of intolerance for differences of opinion, in which we hate to admit we’re wrong or say we’re sorry, penance is a foreign commitment for us 21st century self-indulgent folks.
Some people are planning to take an electronics fast this Lent, voluntarily abstaining from checking Facebook and posting. Others are shutting down their televisions for six weeks. Abstention is one facet of fasting.
Another is slowing down and simplifying. The premise is that we will become more conscious of what we are doing, whom we are with, and how we are impacting others and the earth.
An example is the Slow Food Movement, which promotes taking the time to seek out locally sourced foods to prepare our meals from scratch. The idea is to consider and interact with each step in the process of bringing food to our tables, and to share our meals with our beloveds away from the intrusions of television and cell phones. The hope is that we will become more conscious of our environments and make better choices for the good of our communities and the entire earth.
Reflection, though, requires an addition and not a subtraction from one’s usual activities. For some, reflection will be stimulated by focused reading, contemplative prayer, or other forms of meditation that might include yoga and nature walks. Journaling could be a mindful practice or writing notes of gratitude to people who have helped you along your journey.
Penance is the hard discipline. How do I admit wrongs I’m not even willing to acknowledge to myself? Whom do I confess them to, when most religions have not inculcated a practice of cathartic, specific confession? How do I make up for my wrongs when I am immersed in a culture that tells me I don’t have to, that is, unless I’m caught?
I think grace answers the penance question. Through God’s grace of boundless love, I am forgiven for my wrongs, and the payment that I am asked to make is to give love in equal measure to that which has been given to me. That is, I am asked to love without stinting.
Doing penance is to practice love. In other words, I think that we are called to express love in abundance by generously giving of ourselves, our time, our money, and our belongings.
Lent is about responding to God’s call to slow down and pay attention to what God is doing in the world and ways in which we can individually participate in God’s work.
* Fast, or slow down.
* Pay attention, and reflect.
* Acknowledge our shortcomings, and love generously.
That is doing Lent.