When I was a child, I was Catholic. For Christians, Lent is the 40-day period leading up to Easter, and it begins with Ash Wednesday. While Easter celebrates mankind’s redemption, Ash Wednesday commemorates mankind’s first transgression and the subsequent loss of paradise. On Ash Wednesday (which, this year, is February 14), Catholics go to a special ceremony at a church for a priest to mark them with ashes, telling them, “Remember that you are made of dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
I always loved Ash Wednesday because the science nerd in me really liked the reminder that we are all shaped from the substance of Earth herself. And that after we die, what was once ours to animate returns to the Earth and supports further life by forming the building blocks of new things — cool stuff!
But there is another part to the holiday: one thing Catholics often do during Lent — starting on Ash Wednesday — is to “give something up.” This is meant to be a sacrifice. It’s supposed to be something you really enjoy or appreciate. So Catholic children are taught that they can give up, say, a favorite snack, or stop playing a favorite game, or donate some favorite toys, or “sacrifice” their allowance money for collections in little milk cartons to bring to their Sunday religious classes so that the Church can collect their spare change and (ostensibly) give it to children elsewhere in the world who need it more.
As a kid, I didn’t really question this “sacrifice” idea. After all, “sacrifice” and a deity who seeks such are at the very of the Catholic faith… and at the core of the entire Easter story.
When I got older, however, I started to realize. . . if the God that I was taught to believe in was also omnipresent and omnipotent — completely limitless — then what could I offer to God that God did not already have?
Instead of self-induced deprivation or a casting off of whatever it was that I loved — instead of, effectively, adding more “pain” to an already aching world — could I not honor God, instead, by. . . spreading love?
Was love directed toward my fellow man not ultimately more practical, sensible even, than “sacrifice?”
So I started arriving at conclusions like, “Maybe. . . yes. Maybe instead of, say, abstaining from ice cream Snickers bars for 40 days, I can do more good by. . . doing more good?”
Now, consider also this: in mystic Jewish tradition — Judaism being the foundation, of course, of Christianity — people take the idea of a limitless God VERY SERIOUSLY. Which, if God is limitless, means that. . . God completely suffuses everything. And everyone. And that mankind, therefore, is an expression of divinity. (If God is limitless, where does God “end” and you “begin?” Contemplate that one.)
Therefore, God, who has created this amazing universe filled with amazing, beautiful experiences to be treasured. . . experiences the universe through God’s creations. A plant feels the wonder of rain, and, therefore, so does God. A human feels the wonder of an embrace, or the exhilaration of dance, or the heart-melting love behind a cat’s purr — and God is in these moments, feeling that wonder and exhilaration and love too.
So, that means, our enjoyment of life’s gifts is, thereby, holy. Giving ourselves a chance to grow, to savor something, etc. — means that, by extension, God experiences these delights as well.
So again, I ask — why the self-induced suffering?
Imagine if, for Lent, instead of forgoing sweets or donating clothes that you still like or putting your family through leaner times by giving a larger portion of your income to the Church, you just spread kindness, without insisting that the “kindness” had to be sacrificed? (After all, are our hearts not even more open when we are giving purely from love, and without reservation or sadness?)
What if Catholics, then, used Lent just to be more loving? To do nice things for others? Wouldn’t that be beautiful?
And, instead of “giving up” what they loved or needed, what if they made a deliberate decision to enjoy what they enjoy MORE fully? More mindfully? More gratefully? Why not use Lent to cultivate a sense of mindful gratitude? After all, the idea is, divinity experiences Itself through you. And all experiences are fuller and more beautiful with deep gratitude.
Let’s take the example of cookies. If you love cookies, well, then, no need to swing to the opposite extreme of sacrifice (i.e., bingeing), but why not REALLY love cookies during Lent? When you have one, why not reflect on the wonder of how it tastes and aaaaaaall the little miracles that enabled you to have it? The people who grew the wheat to make the flour, or who worked so hard harvesting the sugar cane on the plantations, or the amazing inspiration of the person who came up with the recipe, or the truck drivers who brought the needed ingredients to the bakery, or the fact that you had the money to buy this cookie at all, or even that you have the medical conditions necessary (whether your insulin is “homegrown” or doctor-prescribed) to eat that cookie and to LOVE it?
There are SO many miracles. In everything. Look for them. Be thankful for them. No need to reject them, now or ever.
And if you do give up something for Lent, then let it be as a gesture of self-love. “I won’t eat more than one cookie a day during Lent because I really need to cut back, for my own health.” “I will try to kick cigarettes during Lent because I know they’re dangerous.” “I won’t reach out to my ex for these 40 days because s-/he’s really not good for me.” Let your “sacrifice” be, instead, a means of showing gratitude for the miracle of your own existence and an honoring of the needs that sustain your wellbeing.
Alternatively, if you really want to “give” something . . search yourself for the gifts within YOU. What gifts have you been sent here with? Are you amazing at cooking? Are you an incredible singer? Dancer? Makeup artist? A fantastic carpenter? Teacher? Writer? Artist? Do you have untapped and uncultivated talents or passionate interests, like a fascination with languages, or gardening, or. . . the list is endless. Consider that we are given our gifts — including our inspirations — TO SHARE THEM.
So if you want to honor God, just maybe. . . you can also do that by embracing what you love. Pouring your heart and soul into that gift and sharing it with the world. After all, when “unto dust you shall return,” your gifts and talents go with you. What joy and comfort and wonder could you have given the world, if only you’d shared what God gave you while you still animated that vessel shaped of dust?
I’m not here to tell anyone how to live their faith. But all I really want to get across is, if you haven’t figured out what to “give up” for Lent, then maybe. . . don’t feel guilty for that this year? Maybe consider whether you can do more good — for yourself or the world around you — by living more gratefully, mindfully, and lovingly, rather than by looking for a way to “punish” yourself or offer a “payment” for Heaven’s truly unconditional love. I can’t claim to speak for the Creator, but my hunch is that you can still make God happy — THRILLED — by enjoying the gifts you’ve been given. Being truly, wholly thankful for them. And spreading kindness.
After all, divine love is unconditional, and truly unconditional love never, ever, ever demands a price.