As we know Lent is a time of penitence and fasting. My little goof ball brain has wrestled with this ever since coming into a Catholic tradition back in the mid-1990s. As someone who grew up pretty ecumenical and culturally Protestant it was a hard transition. Getting to an Anglican and then more Anglo-Catholic theological viewpoint in seminary and the years following was easy. “Head stuff” theology, Church History and other academic disciplines come very easy to me. I live in that world and I love that world, even as a Chaplain in a major teaching medical center I find that I am deeply involved in academics, in this case health care ethics and the role of religion and spirituality in health care.
Developing spiritual disciplines have always been harder for me; however I have developed some over the years especially since I entered the Anglo-Catholic tradition. I value the Daily Office and my spirituality centers around the Eucharist. That being said I have struggled with the more aesthetic aspects of the spiritual life. I think that a major part of this is due to my early life in the Evangelical Protestant tradition. These disciplines are not deeply imbedded in the evangelical tradition. It is not that fasting is not found among Evangelicals, but it plays a different role and for most it is not a routine part of spiritual life for most. In the churches I grew up in fasting or abstinence were both voluntary and for most not a part of church life. There are exceptions to this. Some churches take on 40 days of fasting programs, but these are usually just another part of the churches program for a particular time and usually not continued on a regular basis. So for me this did not come naturally and as a result I struggled with Lent and never looked forward to it. I discussed this some in my previous essay.
Yet, fasting and abstinence can be very beneficial in developing spiritual disciplines, even for people like me. I always try to ensure that I observe meatless Fridays and sometimes Wednesdays. When I was deployed on USS Hue City during Operation Enduring Freedom I had to deal with Lent. Every Friday evening the ship typically served “Surf and Turf.” Since the “turf” was off the menu for me I had to deal with the “surf.” To be sure I am not a big fan of fish or seafood in general. However in the evening the “surf” was either Alaskan king crab or lobster. So for that Lenten observance I had to suffer for Jesus as I made due with these awful delicacies.
Now I have struggled and still struggle at Lent, especially when I focus or become obsessed about what I am giving up, versus trying to use this time as a means to develop and my own spiritual disciplines. When I get focused on the “what’s” of Lent and not the purpose for it I fail miserably. Lent is often for me like spiritual New Year’s resolutions. To be honest I’m still working on these disciplines, I figure I will be doing so the rest of my life as old habits die hard.
My own journey in learning to “survive” Lent is to let go. If things impede and frustrate me then I need to let go of them and focus on what will actually build me up spiritually. Last year I decided to reduce the amount of time I spent watching all the talking heads on TV news and listening to the incessant drumbeat of talk radio. When I did this I noticed a radical shift, I was not long spun up about all the apocalyptic invective on both the right and the left. I began to be able to relax and actually let God’s grace begin to work in me, especially because of what I went through coming back from Iraq. It worked so well that I never went back. Now I watch religious programming like Sports Center, Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption and listen to Mike and Mike in the Morning and The Tony Mercurio Show on my local ESPN station FM 94.1. Another thing that helped me was reading Andrew Greeley’s “Bishop Blackie Ryan” mystery novels which I started doing in Iraq. They are so full of the grace of God and numerous times have touched my very soul. It is now easier, for the most part for me to see people of all religious and political viewpoints as people who God loves and not enemies of me or the unnamed political party to which I may or may not belong.
This year Lent should be better than last when I was still battling the demons of PTSD and was trying to climb out of that hole. That did not happen during Lent last year but began to happen during Advent and Christmas. This year I expect to celebrate Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday when I will conduct the “Protestant” Ash Wednesday service at the Medical Center where I work and also celebrate the season with the good people of Saint James Episcopal Church who during Lent of last year embraced me and helped me reconnect with Christian community.
Of course on Fat Tuesday I will celebrate with my friends in the Stein Club at Gordon Biersch. I will have to bring donuts for everyone that night to have with our beer.