Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Warning: Religious Content Ahead.

Lent is upon us, at least for those of us in the variations of the Christian faith that observe the season of preparation for Easter. Many choose to interpret Lent as a season of scourging, of punishing yourself, carrying the woe of humanity's murder of the Christ, etc.

Not me. And not too many Episcopalians anymore, ashes on the forehead notwithstanding.

Lent is a season of reflection, a forty-day period of meditation and self-improvement. If you give something up for Lent, there should be a reason beyond "I'm giving up something for Lent." Otherwise it is a hollow exercise, a public self-flagellation that serves no real purpose. In the traditional Ash Wednesday readings, Jesus tells us not to engage public displays of religion, that it is only the hypocrites who give alms before an audience and expect the applause for their sacrifice.

For that reason alone, Ash Wednesday always made me a little uncomfortable - it's a physical sign of our faith, literally stamped on our foreheads. In St. Louis, Catholicism is the dominant faith, so no one wonders about the ashes. When I lived in Tennessee, where Baptist churches dominate, I stood out. And frequently someone would say, "You've got something on your forehead, you know."

(My father used to call it "getting your ashes hauled," when makes me snicker inappropriately at the service every years. Thanks, Dad.)

Lent is supposed to be about self-reflection and improving yourself, to make yourself better able to do what it is you're meant to do. It's not about punishing yourself. If you choose to deny yourself something, it should be because you believe this thing interferes with your life, holds you back from your calling or is somehow detrimental to your relationships.

I follow the rituals and customs of my faith because in all their little (and sometimes strange) ways, they remind me on a daily or weekly basis of the kind of person I strive to be. Lent is part of that. On Ash Wednesday, I aim to take a look at myself and see a way I can improve myself, something practical with measurable results, to make me into a better, healthier and/or happier person better able to go about doing the things I'm meant to do in this life.

The idea, I guess, is that if you can do this one thing for forty days, it should be that much easier to keep doing it.

In the past, it has usually been something health-related. By the time Lent rolls around, the New Year's Resolution diet has gone by the wayside and I've fallen away from the treadmill. J and I discussed that, since we were doing South Beach, but by mutual consent we decided to hold off on the diet until after we move. Likewise the workout routine simply won't do - any spare time around our work and travel schedules for the next month must be spent packing things.

So J is going to work on his soda addiction, which has been creeping back up to alarming levels and was a primary cause of his ulcers. His health is important, as is the practice of self-control. Kiddo is working on his homework: he has been habitually leaving important items at school and it causes him to fall behind in his schoolwork. These may seem like small things, but small things lead to big things. We take baby steps toward being the people we should be.

Me? I'm lazy. I will let things go until they absolutely have to be done. This cannot stand during this particular Lent. I am traveling nearly every weekend from now until Easter, and halfway through is the move. My family needs me to kick the laziness to the curb, to spend less time with my hands glued to a keyboard and more time working with them to prepare for this major transition in our lives. I fall too much into the habit of Chair, Laptop and Internet, and it keeps me from doing the things I must do and the things I could do.

These things are important. They will make my life better. They will make ME better, far moreso than some arbitrary self-denial of something like chocolate that would merely punish me without actually improving me.

God doesn't want us miserable. Just aware.



• As always with religious content, I ask that you treat my faith with the same dignity and respect you would wish for your faith or lack thereof.

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