Lent, of course, is the season of fasting: pick something you're too attached to (idolatry? dependency?) / isn't good for you (kick that habit!) / something that will be missed and abstain from it, offering it to God and deepening devotion to him through detaching from earthly life on some level (even if the thing itself isn't inherently bad). Of course, you don't really have to offer it to God--one lady I met on a past Ash Wednesday uses Lent to jump-start her annual diet, abstaining from sugar from Lent till after swimsuit season when she feels free to re-plump on Christmas goodies. Best of both worlds, right?! (As long as one of those worlds doesn't include the Beatific Vision.)
There's a little more going on in a Catholic Lent, from what I gather. First, life in the Catholic Church (and the Anglican and Lutheran churches) is shaped by liturgical seasons, which commemorate key events in the life of Christ (and, to a lesser degree, the lives of Saints). In this way, the life cycle of a Christian as she participates in the life of the Church is experientially connected to the paths of the Christ she follows, as well as tracing the footprints of those who have walked before her. Lent refigures Christ's forty days in the desert after His baptism, his fasting and preparing to begin His ministry--a ministry which culminates in His sacrifice on our behalf and His Resurrection. These forty days also carry the echos of other Biblical forties--Noah riding out forty days and nights of downpour in the ark, Moses' forty days on Mount Sinai communing with God and receiving the Law, the Jews' forty years wandering in the desert, Elijah's forty day-and-night trek to Mount Horeb where he heard the still, small voice of God, and the less popular forty days Jonah's prophecy gave Nineveh to repent. Another Catholic distinctive is the use of specific guidelines to shape commemorations: during Lent, one fasts (eats no more than one meal's worth of food) and abstains from meat on Fridays, refrains from festivities (hence Mardi Gras), devotes extra time to prayer and money or time for the poor. In Mass, the Alleluia and Glory to God in the Highest, very festive songs, are omitted and a longer confession of sin is used. Churches' icons and statues are covered. My parish is decorated with stark, bare branches rather than the usual blooms. Lent is a time of mourning sin, of denying self and pursuing God. Lent is a preparation for the desolation of Good Friday, and the glorious joy of Eastertide, which culminates in Pentecost.
Catholic Lent can be seen as a concentrated renewal of the Christian's devotion to obeying God, in acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with Him. The three pillars of lenten observance are fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. To deny oneself pleasures, to give of one's resources to others, to devote oneself to time in God's presence--and to do all these in concert with the body of believers--certainly revamps one's perspective and sense of what's worthwhile. I find it impossible to actually get through one day--one day, much less a year or a lifetime--in conscious obedience to God. An entire season spent in corporate focus, with all its tangible reminders, is just the kind of ass-kicking a gal like me needs.
You see, I am perhaps the least disciplined person ever, and certainly so in my social circles. I'm lazy, I procrastinate (right now I should be reading Millenium Hall, or emailing Drew or Kate, or folding laundry), I avoid things I'm not in the mood for, I eat too much, I don't keep track of my money, and I never devote time to the things of God unless I'm curious about something or so wracked with doubt that I can't function unless I spend a few hours obsessively searching books and internet for insight. You might say my relationship with God is a highly dysfunctional one. And I wonder why I'm so resistant to following Him.
This year, my Lenten observance is an all-out attack on my star weakness (I'm using energetic language to help convince myself...thus far my "offensive" has included getting halfway through a pile of chicken strips before remembering that I wasn't eating meat that day). When I fast, though I eat just enough to keep my blood sugar from crashing dangerously, the edge of my hunger never really goes away. I feel weak, my mind is scattered, I crave salt. I am empty, dependent. But I am also simplified on some level. It's very hard to be proud when physically spent, somehow. My desires are present, but they cannot rule me as long as I don't carelessly or defiantly break my fast. As I repeatedly deny my desires, they become less insistent on being satisfied. The physical act begins to change my mind, my spirit. I have begun to crave a fast from all undisciplined behaviors--even dumb things like meandering around the internet instead of...well, just about anything I need to do. Who knew a wireless internet connection would be my undoing?
Of course, only three days into Lent, this is still the honeymoon phase. Eventually my Lenten fast and prayer and discipline will get old, and I will eat too many cookies or read random blogs I don't even like for hours rather than write a paper. I will forget to pray, or worse, choose not to. Doubt will deluge my mind. Today's appreciation of Christianity will be tomorrow's repudiation, whether from a justifiable doubt or from self-centered stubbornness. Makes no difference; the day will come. I'm not really sure how I'll react to that. Hopefully, the habit of choosing to persevere regardless of my desires will already be somewhat formed. And hopefully, my past experience of admitting and simply living with my doubt will kick in, without prompting me to also trust the doubts themselves any more than is warranted. We'll see.
Whenever it comes, I'll still be in Lent--the season of lack, of wandering in the desert, of weakness, of temptation to abandon God...and of hearing the voice of God in unexpected places, of preservation, of turning from sin and being faithful to the gospel, as the Ash Wednesday pronouncement goes. I'll be surrounded by a church that consciously chooses to walk that road for forty days, and accompanied by a Savior that walked that road, Himself and with His people. If nothing else, it'll be a good place to start again.