Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season for Catholics the world over. For the last few weeks, I’ve been hearing people talk about giving things up for Lent. My students say they are giving up bread, sweets, ice cream, chocolate, swearing; Catholic friends promise to pray more, meditate, take life slower, and get more exercise, as well as remove all donuts, pizza, and alcohol from their diets.
I’ve never been one to give up something for Lent, mainly because I do not see the point. First of all, I should not be eating ice cream, chocolate, donuts, or bread at any time of the year, and I do not drink wine or beer or anything alcoholic. Not that I am some perfect person; far from it. I just don’t do any of the common things most people swear off of during those forty days leading to Easter. I guess I could stop using colorful language, or I could promise to have a better attitude and be more optimistic, but those things are more a matter of character, and I don’t think denying aspects of character works.
As I have contemplated this issue leading into this season of atonement, penance, and hopefully, redemption, I see Lent as a time to let go of things rather than give up the superficial. It is time to let go of regret, of loneliness, of anger. We need to jettison our delusions, our obsessions, our narcissism.
Yesterday, I stumbled across a quote from Iyanla Vanzant, someone I knew nothing about when I found her words. Evidently, she is part of a religious-philosophical movement called New Thought. She is popular with the Oprah set, a group I usually avoid at all costs, but the ideas in New Thought also have their roots in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism, and were characterized by William James, psychologist and author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, as part of the “mind-cure movement.” Whether or not she is a new age guru or an acolyte of something deeper, I like what she says:
“Until you heal the wounds of your past, you are going to bleed. You can bandage the bleeding with food, with alcohol, with drugs, with work, with cigarettes, with sex; but eventually, it will all ooze through and stain your life. You must find the strength to open the wounds, stick your hands inside, pull out the core of pain that is holding you in your past, the memories, and make peace with them.”
Of course this brings us back to giving up something for Lent, or in my view, letting go of something for Lent. The recognition must be made that we move from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We will die and leave this world, just as it is certain we all were born. To live fully, we must jettison the crutches we lean on and dare to walk through the world without blinders, without anything to soften the blows. We must open ourselves up to life and do what we can in the moment to live fully and with presence. If we can do that as winter journeys into spring, we will find peace when the story ends.