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Lent is Not About Giving Up Gluten
Lent is rather a preparation for receiving love by practicing mercy; Mercy for our broken selves.
"The purpose of Lent is…above all a preparation to rejoice in God's love. And this preparation consists in receiving the gift of God's mercy - a gift which we receive in so far as we open our hearts to it, casting out what cannot remain in the same room with mercy.”
Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration
Cast out what cannot remain in the same room with mercy!
That’s it. We’re done here folks. Put it on a t-shirt and be about your day. Happy Lent!
Seriously though, when I was growing up, Lent wasn’t something I was taught to do. Other than Christmas and Easter we didn’t follow a liturgical calendar. These were things for people who obviously didn’t understand that “by Grace we have been saved” and there was no need for hoop jumping. This might have been a wee bit short sighted.
But jumping back to the whole optimizing vs. becoming conversation, when it comes to Lent a lot of us probably do use this time in the church calendar as an excuse to optimize ourselves, but, according to Merton this is not at all what it’s about. Lent is a preparatory time when our hearts become ready to receive the Love God reveals at Easter.
Sacrificial Love and Resurrection Love. Jesus’ story says, “I’m willing to show you what Love is to the detriment of myself. I’m willing to put myself in danger, in opposition to Empire, and in doing so, sacrifice my own safety. That’s how important Love is and how much I love you.” And the Love of resurrection is God saying, “I love you so much that I promise death is not the end. It’s never the end of the story.”
Think about these two messages of sacrifice and resurrection. Together they can give us the confidence to take big leaps of trust. But I digress. We can go there in 40 days
Our Human Resistance to Being Loved
“Why do we need to prepare to be loved,” you ask, “don’t we love to be loved?”
Unfortunately, this is really hard for a lot of us. Our sense of self-worth, our inability to trust, our discomfort with vulnerability and our feelings of shame make us all prone to resist receiving Love. Also, our American culture which focuses on rugged individualism and the power of the ol’ bootstrap sets us up to reject Love.
Love is something we need to intentionally prepare for.
Preparing our hearts to receive love can happen in many ways, but the way that Merton suggests is by casting out anything that can’t be in the same room with mercy. Now maybe bread is a real stumbling block for you so giving up gluten is gonna prepare your heart to come ablaze; or maybe you just think this is a good opportunity to lose a few. Same with giving up alcohol or spending. These can all be good things, but is our heart set on the preparation of becoming open to love or on optimizing personal performance?
This is easy for me to say cause I’m not a giver-upper. I’m a glutton. As soon as I start to give something up I want it 10x more. Giving stuff up isn’t good for me. Balance is good for me. Sobriety is good for me. However, I’m not exempt from optimization at Lent. This year I’m doing Atheism for Lent, a de-centering study with Pete Rollins. I take advantage of the season to ADD value to my spiritual life through study. There’s nothing wrong with that in the same way there’s nothing wrong with giving up meat for Lent, but is it preparing me for Easter?
So how do we know if what we’re doing is really in the spirit of what Lent is about? Well, let’s go back to the question of what can’t remain in the same room with mercy.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
My hope is that Atheism for Lent will make me a less certain person. (even less certain than the not-so-certain person I am now). And that this un-knowing and uncertainty can lead to compassion, empathy, tenderness, humanitarianism, goodwill, care, mildness and softness. It is NOT about getting better arguments for theism. It’s about casting off those qualities below that fester and can’t be in the same room with mercy. When I hold too tightly to certainty I can also be pitiless, hard-hearted, antagonistic, uncharitable, and resentful.
If your practice builds the qualities of mercy and casts out the qualities of abnegation, then you’re probably preparing your heart well. One of my dear friends shared with me the other night that she’s giving up “junk thoughts” for Lent. These are thoughts, she said , whether spoken or silent, that are self-defeating. Resentment turned on the self. In fact try putting a “self-” before the words in both lists above. We can’t show mercy to anyone if we can’t be merciful first towards ourselves. We can’t be generous with anyone if we are uncharitable towards ourselves.
“Junk thoughts” is probably the bravest thing my beloved friend could have chosen to give up. It is the same “stinking thinking” of addiction. A crutch of sorts. And what I’ve learned from friends in recovery is that when we give up our crutches and acknowledge our destructive thoughts - what we’re left with is not happy-happy-joy-joy, we’re left with the painful stuff. The “Raw Nerve” as another friend of mine calls it. And guess what CAN be in the room with Mercy? Raw pain. In fact, the only way we can be present to our own raw pain is if Mercy is there too.
I have this image of our Pain being cared for by Mercy. Mercy feeds it chicken soup and gives it a back rub. Pain can cry and Mercy calmly sits next to it and listens. Pain might sleep for a long time and Mercy gently feels its temperature and makes sure it has enough blankets. And then after 40 days, Pain has been tended to and we discover that this pain, is actually our heart. And now it has greater capacity. It has enough capacity that when Easter comes along, it can soak in all that Love. And in the presence of our own pain and the presence of great Love, we are transformed.
That’s not hoop jumping, friends.
Hope you’ve had a meaningful Ash Wednesday. I’m going to be putting together some practices for Lent around self compassion and the enneagram so be on the look out. Also…
The (A)Theist Podcast
Welcome to the (A)Theist Podcast, where hosts Erin and Kelley explore American cultural trends through the lenses of a devout Atheist and a devout Theist.
Erin is an author, journalist, voracious reader, and optimist with degrees in journalism, communication, education, American culture studies, and liberal arts.
Kelley is a spiritual director and theater guru with degrees in philosophy, education, theatre and theology.
Join Erin and Kelley (both enneagram 7’s) as they discuss the messiness of being human, the latest in social science and psychology, American culture, and if any of it has to do with homo sapiens' long-time preoccupation with religion.
Check out Erin’s brilliance here!
Be well friends,