Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Don't be an Ash This Wednesday

As a good Catholic girl, this is the time of year I think about how I can be a better person. I think given the recent news of Pope Benedict abdicating this Lent may be a bit more interesting.  I think New Year's resolutions are foolish, but for some reason I have no problem with Lenten "resolutions".  I was pondering why there was such a difference between the two periods of personal improvement and reflection for me.

I am religious, but I'm more of a cafeteria Catholic.  I find the Sacrament of Reconciliation rather silly as I don't think I need an intermediary between God and me to obtain his forgiveness.  Don't get me started on the Church's views on gays.  Despite my picking and choosing of the tenets of my religion, Lent resonates for me.

Lent starts on Ash Wednesday.  I am going to go to church and have the sign of the cross put on my forehead with ashes from the burnt palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday.  The history of the ashes goes back to a time when during the Lenten season only the faithful were allowed into church.  Those who committed serious sins would be forced to wear a hairshirt for forty days.  That hairshirt was blessed with palm ashes.  I imagine that the wearing of a hairshirt was not unlike wearing a scarlet letter.  It marked you as a grave sinner.  Today, it reflects the fact that we all sin but are seeking redemption.

The act of giving something up for Lent is well known.  Catholics are asked to give up something; be it an appetite, a distraction or something we love, not to just suffer, but  to create a "vacuum" of sorts.  It is hoped that this vacuum is filled by the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps that is why I like it so much.  Notice that it isn't necessarily about improving oneself, it is more about creating a "space"  in your everyday life for God to enter.  Additionally, we are only asked to do this for 40 days, not permanently.  After that period of time it is hoped that you would permanently create this space for God even as you go back to enjoying what you sacrificed for Lent.

What many are not aware of is that the Catholic church does not merely want us to give up during Lent.  The Church wants us also to "give out" and "give in" .  By 'giving out' one can express their love of God and Man by making your talents and treasures available.  Acts of kindness, volunteerism, donations of goods and services to those in need are very much a part of the Lenten tradition.  Some Catholics focus on this aspect of Lent more than the giving up part.  In fact at the conclusion of each Mass the priest asks the congregation to "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord."  We are supposed to take what we learn each week in Mass and apply it to the outside world.  I love that fact -- that the Church really isn't about Mass.  It really is about applying Mass to your real life.  Way too many Catholics forget that.  Priests included.

The 'giving in' part is especially interesting to me as it is quite Zen.  In this age of self-fulfillment we are called to go the opposite way.  In order to find your life, your way or your path, you must lose it.  You must let go of it.   We are supposed to give our life and our trust to God.  I also look at it this way: when you cling too heavily to your wants, desires or results, that you often miss an more interesting or fulfilling path that was thrown in your way. This giving in part really feeds into the reasons why we give up during Lent.

I've tried to give up many things during Lent over the years.  Some worked out fine and others not so much.   Giving up wine/booze has never worked well in the past as it makes me a rather irritable person.  I find I'm much better at doing something than giving up something in order to create that vacuum or space for God to enter.  I do this with acts of volunteering that put me in direct contact with those in need.

This year, in addition to volunteering, I am adding daily exercise to the list.  Not to get my fat arse moving, although that is an added benefit; but to clear my head of all the cobwebs and crap that interfere with me creating space or that vacuum for God to enter.

I know there are a few Catholics/Christians out there.  Are any of you giving up something for Lent?

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