Last year on Ash Wednesday, I was ready to roll. I was determined that that was going to be the Lent where I really did it right. I set my sights on three changes: I was going to cut back on carbohydrates, improve my posture, and stop playing Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook.
I was actually excited for Lent to start! I wanted to make changes- to turn my life around. Cutting out carbs would be great for my health, cutting out Bejeweled Blitz would increase my productivity, and sitting up straight is a habit I never formed in my youth. This would be the year. I was going to dedicate my efforts to God and make every one of those 40 days count, and as a reward for my efforts I would wear a smaller dress and sit up straight at Mass on Easter Sunday.
Then, though, reality set in. My family went through a stressful time last Lent- my parents had entered that scary stage where they began to need more care than they can give, and the stress of that distracted me from my devotions.
So I pretty much abandoned my low-carb- deal; instead I was stress-eating Toblerone bars like they were vitamin pills. Ultimately, I abandoned that effort. That is, I would still try, every morning, to start again, but if it was too hard I would cut myself a break, and focus on the other two efforts. I did okay with cutting out Bejeweled Blitz… that turned out to be the easiest of the three efforts.
I was surprised to find that sitting up straight is actually a lot of hard work. I guess that’s why I’d never done it before. Not only is it awkward and not my usual comfortable position, but it takes a mindfulness that I had not expected. Not only did I have to sit up straight but I had to notice when I was slouching.
I tried not to give up on this effort, because I started, last year, to see these Lenten decisions in a whole new light. When researching about Lent in order to teach it to a parent group at my parish, I read something that said “giving up things for Lent is not a requirement. But the Church asks us to do something penitential during Lent.”
Somehow in my 40-some years of Catholicism, I had missed that detail! The changes I make during Lent are supposed to reflect not just my wanting to improve, or to get healthy, or even to demonstrate my devotion to God. They are meant to be signs that I am sorry for my sins.
In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus reminding his new followers of this idea. He advises: “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them… do not blow a trumpet before you… do not let your left hand know what your right is doing… do not look gloomy (when you fast)…”
He is reminding them, and us, that fasting and giving and praying are meant for a greater purpose than just to do something good or difficult, more than just having a list of things to check off or to work on. These are meant to be penitential, personal acts that bring our attention to our sinfulness.
In light of this, my physical slouching took on new meaning. Because, I realized how comfortable I have been in my sinfulness. That slouchy, thoughtless position that I slide back into, without even noticing sometimes- it’s similar to the state of my soul. It’s easier to be sinful than to be mindful. It’s easier to go on with my day, than to focus on God all the time.
So when I would catch myself slumping over, I tried to remind myself that it’s not just my physical posture that needs straightening up- it’s my spiritual posture.
Lent is more than a tune-up. Lent is supposed to have a certain degree of gloom to it. On Ash Wednesday we step forward to join the ranks of the sorry. We wear a sign on our heads that shows the world (at the grocery store and the other parents picking their kids up at school) that we are aware of our sinfulness, and are sorry for it.
The author Parker Palmer says, “...there is a hard truth to be told: before spring becomes beautiful, it is plug ugly, nothing but mud and muck... But in that muddy mess, the conditions for rebirth are being created...”
All through Lent we do some degree of correcting ourselves for our imperfect postures. It would be so easy to just fast-forward over the mud and muck to Easter flowers…but that is not how we roll in the Catholic Church. We know that in order to have Easter, we must pass through Ash Wednesday, we must endure Good Friday. To experience the beauty, we must first face the ugliness- and to become holy, we must first face the ugliness that is within each of us.
So today we begin our journey together from a cold, dark Ash Wednesday through a plug-ugly muddy 40 days of Lent, toward a glorious and joyful Easter. Let’s pray each other through it. God bless you this Lent.