I was on a bus the other day driving through random small town back corners of Southwestern Ontario, and saw a sign on one of the churches that said “Lent is about surrender, not discipline”.
That got me thinking about a lot of things. I definitely like the overall sentiment, especially since I think the elements of authoritarianism, restrictiveness and punishment still pervade the Christian faith (both from within and from the perspectives of those outside). Moving away from spirituality that focuses heavily on those things – and that is grounded, more than anything else, in fear – is, I think, extremely healthy for anyone and a particularly important part of where I see the intersection between faith and feminism (or really, any anti-oppression activism). The word ‘discipline’ is full of incredibly problematic connotations, not least would be the contemporary assertion of “Christian domestic discipline” as biblically justified spousal abuse. The word ‘surrender’ has some layers to it that I had originally planned to address in this post, but I find my brain going in a different direction, so maybe I’ll get to them another time.
The cultural practice of Lent brings a few things about our social attitudes into focus. Again, I think these attitudes are prevalent among people who are practicing Christians as well as people who aren’t, but who have grown up or lived surrounded by a culture that is full of Christian imagery, mythology and behaviours; I think that’s important, because it has to do with how a specific model of thinking continues to shape both our experience of Christianity and things that purportedly have nothing to do with Christianity directly. What, mostly, do we know about Lent? During my (Catholic) childhood, I was told that Lent is when you give up something you like. Chocolate, or TV, or whatever. As I got a little older, I knew that it was related to Jesus having gone out into the desert to fast for 40 days and 40 nights. If Jesus did it, we should do it. Because of the rather tenuous spirituality of my upbringing, I don’t know that I got an understanding that the whole point was to use this time to get into closer contact with God until well into adulthood. All I really knew was that you were supposed to give something up, that it was going to be unpleasant, but that you should do it anyway.
There’s an equation in this picture between suffering and holiness. There’s a direct line between giving something up and being good. Sacrifice is about loss, it’s about unpleasantness and yes, it’s about discipline.
First of all, there’s a point missing on this chain of causality. I was in my 20s before anyone ever talked to me about what fasting meant to them in a more spiritual sense. I realize now that a lot of people take the opportunity, when they feel that sense of craving or frustration or suffering, to pray. Maybe just to force themselves to be more aware of God, maybe to specifically find a way to be grateful for things, maybe to ask for greater peace and acceptance. But there’s a step there between the suffering and the resulting benefit, so that the suffering isn’t the end in itself, nor is the simplistic prideful victory that you were stubborn enough not to give in to the cravings. The moments of pain (however large or small they may be, depending on what you’re giving up) remind you of something you need to be more conscious of, and you bring that to God.
There’s also the assumption that the main point is the taking away of something that one enjoys. When a lot of people casually talk about Lent, they ask “What are you giving up?” This year, I started jokingly saying that I’m giving up working for Lent, but I fairly quickly realized that I wasn’t really joking at all. I’m taking some time off from the 24-hour a week, shift-work heavy part time job that I was trying to retain while also juggling full-time graduate studies and a few other commitments that require varying amounts of time and energy. For six months, I was sleeping sporadically at best, eating completely irregularly and pretty much never feeling genuinely relaxed or calm. It was starting to threaten my health, physically, mentally, and yes, spiritually. Not only did I lack the time to really focus on prayer and meditation, and not only was my exhaustion starting to make me angry, bitter, frustrated and lacking compassion, I was also constantly getting that prideful perfectionist streak back into me. The one that says that I have to do more than anyone else, and I have to be better than anyone else at everything I am doing, and that the possibility that I might have to drop something or do less than brilliantly at something is really absolutely vital to, like, the survival of the human race or something.
The desert is more than just a place of empty, barren sacrifice. It’s more than this no-fun world where you don’t get to do cool things like play video games and eat yummy stuff (the equation of deliciousness and, yes, fat with sin is full of its own problems, and they clearly apply well beyond the boundaries of the Christian faith into our popular consciousness about what is good and bad and holy, but they’re really the subject of another post). The desert is a place of silence and stillness, where you move away from the multitude of distractions that are not God. It’s a place where you’re forced to take away all of the distractions and performances that you put up on yourself and just be.
So I’m giving up working for Lent, as part of a way of foraying into the desert. Given how much trying to do everything and be everything was taking me away from God, this is, actually, an act of surrender. I’m suffering a hell of a lot less these past few weeks, and in fact feeling a great deal of relief and even joy. None of that suffering was doing a damn thing to make me a better, holier person. I didn’t really ever think it would, but I think there’s a subconscious tendency to move towards that belief, where never enjoying one’s self is the mark of true goodness. There’s a reason the ‘martyr complex’ is so pervasive.
If we could all, collectively as a culture, give that up for Lent, I think that would be really cool.