Of the people I know who observe Lent, most do so loosely. They hurried on Ash Wednesday to get crosses at downtown Boston’s in-and-out shrine. They remind each other to eat fish on Friday. They stand next to the office candy jar and discuss what it is they’ve given up this year. They may or may not go to Sunday Mass.
They’re cafeteria Catholics. Or Episcopalians. Or whatever.
I, too, could be called a cafeteria observer. I grew up in a church where Christian ritual meant Sunday potlucks, and I discovered liturgy in college. That spring I decided to give up something during Lent. It felt good to demonstrate self-control. It felt refreshing to fast among others, to be part of tradition. Over the years, I’ve given up meat, lying, artificial sweetener, meat again, and other things I don’t even remember.
This year, however, I had no idea when Lent began. For anyone who needs an excuse, I’ll blame it on officially becoming Quaker, since I now have a theologically legitimate reason not to observe outward religious signs.
But here’s the truth: I’m not observing, because it just didn’t occur to me. And that’s the thing about spiritual practice these days. I can choose to observe, or not. If there’s something I forget, no matter. It probably wasn’t necessary for my spiritual journey anyway.
That’s not wishy-washy. What else is there to do when surrounded by avenues toward enlightenment? Either you practice the tradition you know best, or you do something else. Maybe you do nothing at all.
I know people who found God through 40 days of yoga. They also got killer abs.
A co-worker who is a committed non-believer is observing Lent for the first time since he was in Catholic high school. He hasn’t just given up chocolate, or soda, or frosting; he’s given up sweets altogether. He doesn’t even allow Sundays as a feast day. He claims it’s a spiritual journey, and I believe him.
I believe him because he hasn’t given in when someone offers him a muffin that they swear is more bread than sweet. I believe him because every so often he mentions the perks, like saving money from not indulging in afternoon bakery treats and perhaps losing a pound or two. I believe him because he eats meat on Fridays without hesitation.
When people run down to the in-and-out shrine, year after year, I believe that what they do matters, too. After all, repetition isn’t such an indirect means of discovery. If you go for 40 consecutive days without sweets, or gossip, or meat, or cursing, or sex, or guilt, you’re bound to change, somehow.
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