Is Lent a Contemplative Practice?
I am a member of a church where one liturgical season ends and another begins next week. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the liturgical season we call Lent.
Lent is not about giving things up. It is not a liturgical second chance for people who do not follow through on their New Year’s resolutions. Lent is not primarily about chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, or social media.
We are beginning a season about being honest with ourselves, with other people, with spiritual life. During Lent, we take an honest, insightful look at who we really are. Lent is about reflecting on what we hold onto which holds us back from becoming our truest selves. We look ourselves in the eye and recognize what we do not truly need.
Lent is a time for us to be intimately personal in public.
We prepare ourselves and anticipate the new life of Easter.
The night before Ash Wednesday is, in some ways, the Eve of Lent, the threshold of the new season. Some people take the opportunity to get ready before they begin Lent. Tuesday we begin to open our tightly gripping fingers and let go. We assert our freedom from these habits and things, lifting what we do not need and tossing it aside. Tuesday we take our first step into Lent.
On Wednesday we take our next step. The ashes placed on our foreheads remind us we are tied to the earth. We come from the earth, and to the earth we will return. Our physical life will not last forever, and there are things beyond us.
There are things beyond our reach even though our spirits may soar. What of this finite life will live on when our bodies are no longer here?
Can Lent Be a Contemplative Practice?
Many people assume Lent is about some action we take or stop taking.
Some people decide to either break free from a habit or cultivate a new habit during Lent. They may decide to stop smoking or eating red meat or drinking alcohol between Ash Wednesday and Easter.
It is easy for us to get caught up in our expectations about what we are doing. We forget why we are doing it. Some people intentionally choose to break a habit which will not be too challenging for them to break. We might focus so much attention on meeting our own expectations we miss the point of Lent.
Lent is a season about remembering who we are and who we are becoming.
The time we spend reflecting reminds us of our true selves and our deepest values. We put distractions and obstacles out of our minds so we can remember where we are headed. Of all the things we would like to make different, we choose one on which to concentrate.
Each step we take can be a contemplative practice.
We say goodbye to everything weighing us down or holding us back. Setting aside habits and relationships, possessions and expectations, we move forward.Each Lent is an opportunity to excavate at a new level. Some years are a step further, some years are a new beginning. It can be difficult for us to know which is which at the time.
How will we transcend our rules and expectations to remind ourselves of Lent as a contemplative practice? Can a contemplative practice of Lent free us from feelings of guilt or stress? Would Lent as a contemplative practice change how we understand what Lent is about?
What needs to change in us for Lent to be a contemplative practice?
Beginning a Contemplative Practice of Lent
For me a contemplative practice of Lent begins with setting aside my own assumptions and expectations.
We get caught up in what we have heard, or think we remember we heard, about what Lent should be. Some people assume certain things are appropriate as Lent disciplines and others are not. It is as if there is a list of approved practices we are supposed to follow. There is not.
The ways we practice Lent are up to each of us as individual people. Our practice is personal. Each of us can take some time before Wednesday and discern what our practice will be.
One year I gave up fear for Lent. Another year I gave up Netflix. There was a job I gave up for Lent.
Each of us chooses our own contemplative practice of Lent. There are no rules we need to follow, no standards we need to meet.
Some people choose a practice they want to begin rather than one they would like to end.
It can also be helpful to set a time each day to remind ourselves about our practice. It can be easy for us to lose track.
Sharing a Contemplative Practice of Lent With Other People
I feel support when I am surrounded with other people who have a contemplative practice of Lent.
We are not compelled to share the details of our practices even while encouraging and praying for each other. It is enough for us to know we each intend to practice.
It can be helpful, for some people, to share honestly about our practices with one other person. They need to be someone we trust to keep our confidences and trust to have our best interests at heart.
One of the most attractive and supportive aspects of a contemplative practice of Lent is having a network. Even though I may not know any details, I know I am part of a large network of contemplative practice.
Beginning on Wednesday, people around the world will begin their contemplative practice of Lent. There is never a time throughout the day when there is not someone practicing Lent.
Each of us is an encouragement and inspiration to other people with a contemplative practice of Lent this year.
How will we choose a contemplative practice of Lent today?
What contemplative practice of Lent will we begin this week?
[Image by Johnragai-Moment Catcher]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor and coach in Southern California. He is a recovering attorney and a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com, and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.