This will come out shortly in Guilford College's campus ministry newsletter.
And see the post below this one for an Ash Wednesday reflection from two years ago, "Ashes and Weeping," published in The Witness. Two very different audiences. The one in this post is not very churchy. The "Ashes and Weeping" one is much more so.
Time for Lent
“What are you giving up for Lent?” a friend asked me the evening before Ash Wednesday. I didn’t know and I didn’t want to think about it – I was in the middle of a late-night Mardi Gras party. Besides, it often takes me a week or ten days to figure out what I will “do for Lent.” By that time, it’s around the Second Sunday in Lent, but there’s a whole month left after that.
Lent, for those of you who don’t know, is the long season before Easter, the feast (and season) celebrating Jesus’ resurrection which begins with the commemoration of his suffering and death. For six weeks, Christian communities and their individual members engage in spiritual practices that foster a deeper relationship with God, a keener attention to charity and justice, and a reflective mood. Traditionally, this has also been a season of repentance – a season of turning, as in “turning back” or “turning around,” as in turning or returning, to God: in other words, a season of conversion, in the deepest sense of the word.
The three traditional practices of Lent –prayer, fasting, and almsgiving— are bodily and communal as much as they are matters for the individual and the soul. They are also intimately connected with one another, just as for Muslims the fast of the holy month of Ramadan is related to the injunction to give to the poor.
Christian congregations have various ways of living and encouraging their members to live Lent. And the individual members, depending on the shape and circumstances of their lives, adapt the ancient practices to the times in which they live.
And so we ask ourselves, and our friends ask us, “What will you do for Lent?”
There are some dangers hidden in this question. The first is this “doing for Lent” notion. We are, as a culture, preoccupied with and caught up in “doing” – producing, working, competing, achieving, being and staying busy. Our “doing for Lent” can get tangled up in that very pattern.
What Lenten practice or practices will help you and me get out of production mode in our lives and into relationship mode or contemplative mode? Is there a discipline we can practice that will bring us more life? That’s part of the point of Lent and its ancient practices. There’s a passage in the Gospels in which Jesus talks about coming to bring “life to the full.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean “a fuller schedule.”
If anything, Lent calls us not so much to do as to make room: for quiet time, for empty time, for time when we can receive the great message of embracing love.
Which brings me to the second difficulty with the “What will you do for Lent?” question. In case you hadn’t noticed, we have a big time problem at Guilford. Much of our community is sleep-deprived. Faculty and staff work twenty and thirty hours beyond the long-forgotten forty-hour work week. Students often do as well, juggling jobs and full course loads and in some cases, families or sports team commitments. Paperwork and deadlines abound. Meetings multiply. E-mail and cell phones are ever present. A constant stream of information and communication enters our ears, our visual field, our bodies and minds. Our weekends have shrunk. Sabbath time is scarce.
A telling conversation took place in my “Health, Spirituality, and Justice” class just this week. We’ve been reading The Sabbath, the classic work on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) by Abraham Joshua Heschel and a few essays on related topics. Students have learned about the Jewish Sabbath, but also had a chance to reflect more broadly on Sabbath in their own (mostly non-Jewish, in some cases Christian, in other religiously unaffiliated) lives and examining whether and how they engage in any of the practices associated with the traditional Sabbath: a regular weekly rhythm of rest, time for reconnecting with the sacred, festive meals with loved ones, the nurturing of community life, study of holy wisdom and sacred texts, attention to beauty and sensuality, honoring intimacy. Several in the class noted that they simply were not able to find time even for a Sabbath afternoon, let alone for 24 or 25 hours.How can we find time –not just once a week, which is hard enough, but on a regular basis during Lent, perhaps daily—for practice that fosters contemplation, reflection, and remembrance of the world’s need for justice and healing, when this time is “on top of everything else?”
Something’s got to give.
Think about Lent as a time to do less. Let go of something. Maybe that’s what fasting means for us this season. A little less television. A little less web surfing. A weekly or daily time of prayer or meditation, indoors or out, that can happen because something “gave,” or rather because we gave up something. Without the building of a protective boundary around some portion of our time –on a regular, repeated basis—we cannot even begin to live the practices of Lent.
We can start “small and simple.” This is not the spiritual Olympics. God isn’t standing over us with a stop watch. Not ever, but especially not in a season meant to help us rediscover the tenderness of divine love.
Giving up time in order to make time, for the sake of life to the full, life to the full in the here and now: this is a choice. Most of us have it. Most of us can make it.
But sometimes –often— the time bind is systemic. It isn’t just about our lacking will power or discipline. More and more, the culture in which we live, both in the U.S. and at Guilford, reinforces doing rather than being, production rather than celebration and contemplation, and the lack of boundaries between work and home. It squeezes out time for contemplation and relationship. It affects privileged people whose salaries are high but who are pressured to work 70 hours a week and who worry –I have seen this!—about what kindergarten their 3-month-old baby will get into five years hence so that she can get into the best prep school to get into the best college later on. Even more, it affects the greater number of people who don’t have the choice whether or not to work that extra shift so they can pay their rent or feed their children, or to attend school full-time while working twenty hours a week at minimum wage.
So what keeps us from adopting spiritual disciplines –in Lent and elsewhere in time— is sometimes a cultural or economic or institutional factor: the encroachment of work on private and community time, economic necessity, the structuring of workplaces, schools, and religious communities.
The solutions to spiritual need, then, are not just individual. Like the solutions to physical hunger, they are communal. The loss of Sabbath time – and by extension, the loss of Lenten contemplative time – will not be remedied only by individual choices and mindful acts of spiritual practice. It will also find restitution, repair, and healing through campaigns for living wage, through creation of healthier workplaces, through collective and leadership decisions to consider and honor the hungers of body and spirit.
Which brings me to a final point. “What are you going to do for Lent?” and “What are you giving up for Lent?” are individual questions. Alert: Lent is a communal journey. A colleague of mine once spoke of it as a retreat on which the whole church community goes together for six weeks. The Christian community looks toward Easter together and it journeys together. Spiritual practice isn’t just something that happens as one more personal choice. We can’t do it alone.
Find a community of faith and practice, on campus or off. (You won’t be signing your life away. We’re talking six weeks here.) Find a buddy and share your Lenten practices with a partner. Find or start a small group, whether it is a Lenten group for prayer and meditation, or one of the campus ministry-sponsored “Passional Attraction” groups. Seek out wise elders and peers. Ask for help and for resources. Use your imagination and tap the imagination of others. Stillness needs and requires support.
Time for Lent. Think about it.
One possible source of support for the Lenten journey, written especially for students:
Sitting Still, available for free download at
Or, if you want, you can sign up for free daily e-mail meditations by sending a blank e-mail with your e-mail address as the subject line and the words “join meditations” in the body of the e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .