Every liturgical season is a reminder that many newcomers here at St. Paul’s come from other traditions, and may not be familiar with the various seasons of the Episcopal church calendar. This year, we’re asking members of the community, from “old hands” to recent arrivals, to answer the question, “what does Lent mean to me?” We’ll be posting them here regularly as we move into, and through, the Lenten season.
Today, Mark Lester shares his thoughts with us.
Ask a group of Roman Catholics, Lutherans or Anglicans about the meaning of Lent, and most would probably say something along the lines of “repentance, prayer, and fasting.” But beyond that core agreement, each of us interprets these holy practices in his own way. Some do this very traditionally, while others find meaning along a slightly different path.
For me, Lent is when I take stock of my life. This is something I should be doing continuously, but Lent gives me the nudge I need to really think seriously about things. The example of Jesus’ desert temptation, when he sorts out what he’s called to do, and prayerfully finds the courage to say no to things that are temptingly sweet but don’t fulfill that calling, is a powerful image for me. My personal touchstones for Lent are “grounding, listening, and detaching.” This is what I mean by them and this is also what Lent means to me:
Grounding: Even at nearly sixty, I’m still pretty blind, most of the time, to my mortality. I carry on unreflectively with day-to-day life as if there were an endless succession of tomorrows. I know that death is in my future, but most of the time that chastening fact doesn’t have much effect on how I lead my life. But kneeling at the altar rail on Ash Wednesday to have ashes mixed with chrism smeared onto my forehead is a true reminder of mortality. It grounds me, makes me aware, if even for just a brief space, that I am finite, limited, and ever dependent on God. Dust. This rude reminder urges me to turn towards God, and to contemplate my life, both where I’ve been and where I’m headed.
Listening: It’s hard for me to listen to people. I want to interrupt, to complete their thoughts, to transform what they are saying into what I want to hear them say. It’s even harder for me to listen to God. Too often when I pray I say the words, but don’t listen to what God is saying to me while I voice the prayer. So, trying to get to a place of quiet listening is part of my Lenten practice. I don’t believe that God’s word is limited to sacred scripture; God is still speaking – often through music and art – and also through human acts of kindness and love. So during Lent, I try to slow down, and I try to stop completing God’s sentences, whether in word or music, and just prayerfully listen.
Detaching: “Giving up” a favorite food (or entertainment) for Lent is a revered tradition, but not one that works for me in the long haul. Resolving to deny myself something relatively harmless, even for the forty days of Lent, too easily becomes an ego-filled enterprise of victory vs. failure. Instead, I try to reconsider one or more of my habits during Lent. Not always changing them, but at least trying to see them for what they are. Most aspects of our lives are shaped by habitual patterns of behavior; some of them are good, and keep us functioning healthily, while others ultimately tear us down. The key for me is to “detach” from the routine practice of a habit, and then reflect on it. Is this good for me? Is it respectful of others? Is this how God would have me be? For me, Lent means that it is time to go off “auto-pilot,” and to consider prayerfully why I do what I do.
Finally, Lent also means that Easter is right around the corner – regardless of how well or how poorly I’ve lived through the discipline of Lent, Easter will come as the assurance of God’s love, without condition and without exception.