Today is the first day of Lent, a 40-day period of fasting and contemplation for those of us who practice Christianity. It begins with Ash Wednesday, where Christians are marked with the ashes of palm leaves that had been blessed during last year's Palm Sunday and told "From dust you are, and to dust you will return." Over the next six weeks -- ending with Easter Sunday -- worshippers engage in prayer, penance, the giving of alms, and self-denial. For most of us who are a bit more secular, Lent is mainly a way to feel a bit better about falling off of our New Year's Resolutions by vowing to give up a bad habit for 40 days or so.
I've always been fascinated by festivals of self-denial and contemplation. Shortly after 9/11, a friend of mine still in high school practiced Ramadan as a show of solidarity with the local Muslim community and I joined in. I learned an awful lot about my relationship with food over that time and just how hard it is to deny yourself something if you've gotten used to indulging in it whenever you wanted. As the month went on, I cultivated a significant appreciation of food -- getting up before sunrise every morning to make breakfast helped me to spend some time in the quiet, loving the small bit of food I'd take in to last me the rest of the day. And eating at sunset -- often with other people -- was almost always something special. The whole month brought a mindfulness to eating and gave me a newfound respect and joy when it came to breaking bread with other people. I may not act on the lessons I've learned there right now, but I still remember them.
The period of Lent is meant to give Christians a small taste of what it must have been like for Jesus Christ those forty days he wandered in the desert before beginning his public ministry. It's a way to take a step back, focus on the things that are really important to you, put yourself in a space where you think about things a little differently. The most popular aspect of Lent -- self-denial -- can still be useful even to those of us who aren't practicing Christians by showing us just how much we've come to rely on certain things and just how little we actually need them.
If you're Christian and about to embark on the forty-day contemplation of Lent, I wish you a wonderful and holy season. If you're non-Christian and using this as an opportunity to examine your relationship to something you think you can't do without, good luck. You absolutely can, and I hope you'll have a deeper appreciation of yourself and how you work when Easter Sunday rolls around.
Me, I'm going to do my best to give up mindlessness over Lent. It's a bit of a cheat, but really zeroing in on habitual behaviors -- especially when they're negative -- is something I could really use. It's all right to get some down time, of course; but it's so much better when that's a conscious decision I've made as opposed to a default behavior I fall into whenever there's free time. I will do my best to cultivate mindfulness, to speak, write and act with purpose, to strive to make myself, my surroundings and my fellow man better.
Now it's just a matter of figuring out exactly how to do that! Are any of you giving up something for Lent? What does the observance mean to you? Have I gotten anything wrong in my understanding of it? Let me know in the comments!