How odd that I spent so much of my professional life dealing with religious fasting. I’ve written several papers either specifically dealing with fasting or that in some ways touched upon it; even the Dissertation-from-Hell™ touches on it tangentially, as fasting is a form of penance and penance is one of the steps on the “Redemption Path” in nearly ever variation of it.
Incidentally, if you even want to really fear or appreciate (depending on your mood) the nature of humanity–read some medieval penitentials, the books that housed the catalogs of sins and the various means of penance* associated with each sin. Such penance ranged from mere public confession (this example is a later one–not medieval) to permanent wandering exile (hence part of the significance of the Wandering Jew stories)–and some assorted oddities (heck the sins listed are at least half the fun).
So, today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of one of the major penetential seasons–Lent (Advent being the other)**. Check out this Time article from 1946 on the subject of Lent; I am really intrigued by the remark about the contemporary European Christians: “large parts of the Continent have been fasting, wearing sackcloth, and living amid ashes for several years.” This in the years after WWII, of course-a haunting image of the events that laid waste to so much of Europe.
Contemporary Americans tend to see the day before Ash Wednesday through the lens of Carnival and Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday!)***, rather than Shrove Tuesday. Mardi Gras is celebatory excess before the penance of Lent; Shrove Tuesday signified confessions before the penance (which was a tad closer to traditional Penetential Rites, which are to be preceeded by confession).
Depending on your worldview, Grace should probably be part of the step between penance and salvation, as not all sinners who follow the track (if we look at literature, anyway) achieve “salvation,” as in a number of Faust texts–that is one of Christopher Marlowe‘s major themes, indeed: why act in good faith if the deck is stacked against you?
So, today begins one of the major penitential seasons. Many will begin the season by receiving a mark–usually a cross in ash (made from the palms from the previous Palm Sunday). The mark signifies the perceived “otherness” of the christian wearing it–beyond the world. Marked as different; marked as one of Christ’s own. Others, just as true of faith, will not begin the season in this fashion, often because the worldly demands of their lives prevent them from so doing. My church has the Ash Wednesday service at 12:00, for instance. Of the years I have lived here, I’ve been able to attend precisely once. Could I alter my professional life in order to more fully participate in my spiritual one in this instance–perhaps. But, I also know that part of my work here in the world is to assist students and this week (Advising and Midterm) demands my presence here with them–and I think that demand is an equally important part of my faith. To say nothing of the exciting information that gets dropped in my lap from time to time…yeee gads.
Many of you will give up something for Lent. Usually it is a vice that we surrender–real or perceived. Cigarettes, alcohol, meat (possibly the origin of the word Carnival: carne vale–“farewell to meat”), chocolate…anything that we can deem or isolate as “sin,” “sinful,” or “worldly.” I even have a friend who pondered giving up Facebook. Her rationale is solid–she wants for more time with her family, so she’ll give up one of her distractions and learn to live without it. After Lent, then, she could enjoy it in more balance.
Lent as a teaching moment. Now that’s a good use of penance (one is supposed to learn during penance, after all).
Another school of thought, oft championed by our own Rev. Dean Smith, is “taking on” something for Lent, rather than giving something up. Again, the theory is sound–many old penances involved taking something on in order to–again, learn (and also to signify–as with the ash cross, though for different reasons–otherness). One might take on a hair shirt or a cross or chains or self-flagellation…you’ll notice a pattern here. Most of the things “taken on” were painful or uncomfortable. One can do this intellectually, too–take on something you’ve not ever read or something you’ve rejected in order to learn and understand it better. I’ve often heard people decide to “read the whole Bible” for Lent, or to take on the major religious text of another religion for study (I’m particularly fond of that).
And, no, I am not going to read Gravity’s Rainbow for Lent. That would constitute cruel and unusual punishment…well, maybe it could be a hair shirt kind of deal.
Anyway, I thought about this on my runs recently; I don’t have much in the way of vices these days, what with the whole sobriety thing. Already I don’t smoke, drink alcohol, take illicit drugs (heck, I don’t even take Advil), consume vast quantities of sugar (marathon training, after all), have illicit sex (*snort*), cheat on my taxes, nor anything else especially nefarious, save for the swearing (and I am not giving that up, thank you) and caffeine (hands off!). I could probably be safely accused of other bad habits, but I can’t think of any right now. Not going to forgo meat because I fare better with it on the training schedule than without it (though, note-to-self: Cajun sausage produces nausea the next morning at about mile 1.36. Avoid.).
My major vice’o concern™ is anger…and it’s a fairly sizable one. But, it is also just a tad difficult to “give it up” wholesale, much as I would like to. So, I think that for this Lent, I am going to take on means of stemming the anger response–meditation (daily–since I rather got away from it last fall), reading books that address anger and fear, and making a gratitude list every day for the next 6 weeks (until the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of Spring, or Easter Sunday, for you mortals<–I didn’t even have to look that up–that’s some geekdom right there). Running will probably serve this well, as I’m usually too tired to bother getting angry at night. The objective is to “negotiate” situations that frighten me (fear being the source of anger) in more productive ways, so that during Lent I can learn and after Lent I can continue the process and maybe, just maybe, give more of my life to God and family than to fear and anger, which sounds like a pretty good deal. Best wishes today, all. Peace, Your Occasionally Intrepid Runner
*Holy Mother of…wow…a website devoted to Tertullian. And to think I spent months digging around in the library to read the same stuff. That is what I get for not googling Tertullian….which sounds vaguely nasty, come to think of it.
**Yes, Rev. Smith, even this recovering Episcopalian sees Advent as penitential. I do understand your concerns about “rushing to the manger.”
***My family included. We have red beans & rice, sausage, veggies, and King Cake every Mardi Gras. MB came home wearing beads yesterday, which seemed…I don’t know…an odd thing to be distributing at school, no?