Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Ethos of Lent

 Lent has a certain feel to it, and a specific cultural code.  My choice of Lenten "sacrifice" is gauche and offensive by pretty much any Catholic or Lutheran standard.  I knew this going in, more or less, but after attending Ash Wednesday services in our local Catholic parish yesterday, there could be no doubt in my mind that my new 40 day commitment is inappropriate for Lent.  Hearing the priest talk about "the extent of our depravity" and the way our Lenten sacrifices come to show us how helpless we are, I felt a little out of place to say the least. 

The bad habit I am sacrificing is celibacy within marriage.  Traditionally, people who observe Lent have done the opposite of what I have chosen to do; giving up sex for Lent is apparently more of a done thing than giving up marital laziness. 

It is noteworthy that Martin Luther, by historical accounts, did not advocate giving up sex for Lent and he and his wife apparently always had a very regular schedule of intimacy.  In the book, Luther on Women, I read that Luther believed marital sex to be "a remedy against worse sin," and this is consistent with late medieval thought.  His approach was progressive for the time, since he thought marital sex should not be overly circumscribed during prohibited times such as Lent.  Nonetheless, he advised a good deal of restraint, even for married couples, so that the marital bed would not be turned into a "manure heap and a sow bath" (Luther on Women, 12).

I do understand that Lent is a time to be morose, rather than jubilant.  We can get happy again at Easter.  Last year, when I was rediscovering my Lutheran roots, I got into the suffering ethos of Lent.  I cried reading Psalm 22 and did most of the other "done things."  I was sincerely experiencing the sorrowful emotions that go with Lent, and meditating on Christ's sacrifice.  I even enjoyed looking at the more gory crucifixes.  I am not writing this to be disrespectful to Christians who experience their faith this way, and I can still relate to it.  However, I don't find that this type of practice does much for me.  When I have done this in the past, Lent ends and then I am right back where I started.  Nothing changes.  Jesus' triumph still stands and I am apparently still saved.  No one is any better off for my momentary wistful sadness and small personal sacrifice. 

One the one hand, Christians teach that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation and all our striving amounts to stealing the glory from Jesus.  He did it and it's done, end of story.  The priest said yesterday, "because of what Christ did for us, we don't have to give into every new self-help fad that comes our way; we cannot help ourselves."  That is why I can't understand the need to mope around for 40 days before Easter every year, proving that we can forgo pleasure; "it's the least we can do, given how much Christ suffered for us."  Really?? I thought the point in the first place was that we can't do anything to pay it back to him.  So are we doing it to prove our love for Jesus?  Are we doing it to preserve an ethos from the Middle Ages?  I love reading about that time period, and in fact, I specialized in medieval literature in graduate school.  I prefer the mystical ethos to the Lenten ethos.  What I love about both (medieval Lent and medieval mysticism) is that they are not intellectual in nature.  Nowadays, people like to observe Lent and top it off with pseudo-rational arguments about how it should be done (people like me, evidently).

Truthfully, I don't care how other believers want to get nearer to Christ during this time.  I think it is beautiful to connect in some way to his suffering, if that allows us to more fully enjoy our freedom from sin and death.  I think about the night when Jesus asked his disciples to watch and pray with him at Gethsemane, and that is the type of prayer and meditation I want to engage in during Lent.  That goes with the correct ethos.  However, when it comes to a daily spiritual commitment, I like choosing something that will constructively affect the way I live my life year round, and something that will uplift me and others around me. 

During my recent Sadhana (another 40 day spiritual practice) the daily written messages sent to us by the yoga teachers exemplify a spiritual practice that enhances life and nourishes the soul.  I don't know that it makes sense to try and change the ethos of Lent, but the excerpted passages below exemplify the type of ethos that feels right to me, and that seems more appropriate for effecting positive change in ourselves and in the world.  I think this type of spiritual practice is a wonderful commitment, during Lent or anytime.  This is not the stuff of "self-help fads", by the way:

"Spiritual practice, by uprooting our personal mythologies of isolation, uncovers the radiant, joyful heart within each of us and manifests this radiance to the world. We find, beneath the wounding concepts of separation, a connection both to ourselves and to all beings. We find a source of great happiness that is beyond concepts and beyond convention. Freeing ourselves from the illusion of separation allows us to live in a natural freedom rather than be driven by preconceptions about our own boundaries and limitations.
~ Sharon Salzburg, Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Let your practice be your archaeological guide, uproot your personal mythologies, uncover your radiance, free yourself from the illusion of separation and limitations! Venture bravely beyond the preconceived notions which condition you to think small. Discover and recover who you are at the very core and find the connection to all beings. It's day 21, go ahead, let your heart shine with love and compassion!" -Ellen Forman

~ Swami J

Yoga sutra 1.12, These thought patterns (vrittis) are mastered (nirodhah, regulated, coordinated, quieted) through practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya). (abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah)

I can really appreciate the clarity and simplicity of Swami J's words, Never Give Up, Always Let Go, to explain this yoga sutra!

Abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (non-attachment) are two core principles of yoga. Abhyasa is to cultivate an attitude of consistent effort towards lifestyle, actions, speech, and thoughts, that lead us towards equanimity and stability. It means consistently making mindful choices to serve the highest good. Vairagya (non-attachment) is to consciously explore and let go of the many attachments, aversions, fears, and illusions that conceal our true nature. Practice helps us navigate in a positive direction, while non-attachment keeps us from getting stuck in the old grooves and repeating the same minds loops or patterns over and over.
Stay the course, go the distance, take this mantra with you: Never give up, always let go!" -Ellen Forman

"Yoga practice is about expanding and strengthening circuits in the mind-body that are less frequently used and repatterning those that are inefficient. This is called "nirodha".  Nirodha is the releasing of habitual patterns or fluctuations of the mind-body, but it also describes the energy that comes from the letting go of old patterns.
~ Richard Stone
This quote is referring to the yoga sutras, Book One, sutra II: yogas chitta vritti nirodhah, the restraint of the modifications of the mind stuff is yoga. When we commit to our practice we begin to rewire the mind so that we stop repeating the same old patterns that lead to suffering and pain, and begin to live a life that is happy and free. This is your birthright, go ahead and claim it!" -Ellen Forman

"Paramahansa Yogananda once said,

"Change yourself and you have done your part in changing the world..."

Do you know, can you accept, that what you are doing will influence the world? The changes you continue to make within and outside of yourself will indeed change the world! How you carry yourself effects everyone around you, who in turn affects everyone around them, and everyone around them, and everyone around them, and so on. 
It is the web of life and we are all in it, all a part of it and all making it and breaking it and rebuilding it.
We have sixty four people on this email list and fifty on our Facebook page. Some of you may have decided to be on both lists but even considering the few who have done that we have a really nice sized group working for personal change that will in turn affect change around them and throughout the world! 
You have done your part to make the world a better place for the last thirty two days! That's something to be proud of!" -Siri Chand Kaur



  1. AMEN!!! Extremely well written and beautifully conceived. Thank you!

  2. Daddy, we are so much alike! :P

  3. Thank you, Michelle. Really enjoyed reading this. Love being able to observe your process :-) Cheryl