I’ve decided to observe Lent again after a long time away from church. But I’m doing it in reverse.
Lent was started a long, long time ago by Catholics to imitate Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness. It’s often compared to Ramadan or Yom Kippur, but it’s pretty rare for people to actually fast for Lent anymore.
Usually, we fast or deny ourselves of something we enjoy for forty days before Easter. For protestants, a lot of people give up meat or alcohol or sweets.
One year I observed the Greek Orthodox Lent with a friend. We gave up dairy, meat, fish, olive oil and wine - things that would have been symbols of living the good life back when the Orthodox Church leaders chose them. But I was vegetarian off and on through those years and I used almond milk in my coffee, so it kind of defeated the purpose.
The idea is that when we crave the things we’re denying ourselves, we remember to pray and focus on more serious, spiritual matters. One year, I gave up television. Now THAT was a long forty days. I did lots of praying.
These days, I’m working to heal what I now understand to be a dysfunctional relationship with religion. I’ve been taking a break from that world, so I haven’t observed Lent in years. But I feel a surprisingly strong desire to get back to it this year.
Religious Trauma - A Perpetual State of Lent
The problem is, I feel like I’ve lived in a perpetual state of Lent most of my life. It’s only gotten worse with age. I started PlayGrounding because I’ve had such a hard time letting go to enjoy anything at all.
My lists of shoulds and shouldn’ts couldn't be any longer than they already are. I carry the weight of the world on my shoulders whether the world knows it or not. It’s shaped my brain and made it really hard to enjoy life without crushing shoulds and shouldn’ts lurking around every corner.
Embracing Joy Means Giving Something Up
So if I’m going to observe Lent this year, I am going to stand the concept on its head. But not really. Every day, I’m going to take a full hour (at least) to do something fun - extra points if it brings me actual joy. It doesn’t sound like I’m giving anything up, does it? But I am.
I’m giving up self-importance - the feeling that if I take a break, the world will fall apart.
I’m giving up martyr status - that I was somehow put on this planet to serve others’ joy and never my own.
I’m giving up self-flagellation.
I’m giving up the delusion that if I just be really, really good, everything will be better.
It might sound crazy, but I will crave these things. I will crave them because they’ve given me a sense of purpose for as long as I can remember. They’ve become part of who I am. But I’ve been learning that they don’t have to STAY a part of who I am.
Why I Believe Jesus Would Totally Be Down With This
(Because who doesn't love a good theological justification for their actions?)
When I really think about it, what better way could there be to prepare for remembrance of the death of Jesus than to celebrate something he taught all the time? Jesus was a big believer in enjoying life. He even spent quite a bit of time teaching his friends about it and used several different colorful illustrations to help them understand that worry and anxiety are not good for us.
He’s the one who said, "Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Luke 12:25-26)
He reminded them not to worry about things like clothes and riches. He told them to consider the lily, to consider how beautiful it is without even trying.
"Come on, sit down and have some fun." - Jesus (slight paraphrase)
One of my favorite stories is one day when he was visiting his friends for a meal. You remember, Lazarus? The guy he brought back from the dead? They were very close.
Anyway, Lazarus had two sisters, Mary and Martha. Martha was busy making dinner, while Mary was hanging out with Jesus in the living room washing his feet.
She said, "Jesus, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
He said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Ouch. When I was a kid, I always thought I’d grow up to be a Mary.
And because I went to seminary (never ordained) I have to add one more example to my little sermon here.
Jesus Teaching Self-Love to Politicians
When Jesus was testifying before congress and and the Pharisee party was trying to ask him a trick question, he was asked which commandment was the greatest. It was their way of trapping him into declaring his political faction. Is he a circumcision guy? Maybe he roots for the Sabbath?
But he said the greatest commandment is to love God, then the second greatest is to love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus was a sassy kind of guy. I like to read it as Jesus using a spiritual truth to embarrass arrogant politicians. The truth itself is everyone’s favorite love truism: that we can’t really love others unless we love ourselves. It might sound cliche, but it’s hard to actually do it.
Arrogant people who love themselves too much don’t love others enough. People with codependent tendencies (like me) love others but in a weirdly selfish and controlling way without really knowing how to love themselves. So it may be a cliche, but we really need to keep hearing it.
Healing from Spiritual Trauma
I developed my incapacitating co-dependence growing up in church. Mental health professionals are starting to acknowledge Religious Trauma Syndrome as a real problem. Spiritual abuse has many forms, but one of the most insidious is the annihilation of the sense of self.
It doesn’t have to come from a single abuser. It can be the result of a prevailing culture - a “group dynamic,” if you will. PTSD associated with spiritual abuse is referred to as “crock-pot trauma” as opposed to resulting from a single traumatic event.
I’m going to be in therapy for a long time, but I’m really happy with where I am. I’m even talking about it openly, which I never thought would happen given that fear, no, terror of speaking our own truth is one of the most common symptoms.
Since leaving the church, I get sad around Easter because it was my favorite holiday. So this year I’m going to celebrate it in a different kind of way.
The Spiritual Dimension of Play
I’ve resisted any kind of discussion about “spiritual” things on PlayGrounding, but the more I learn, the more I realize that play has a very spiritual dynamic. I’m going to be exploring that, not from the perspective of any one religion. I’m just observing Lent from one specific tradition because it’s what I grew up with and it’s part of what I need to heal.
I am going to consider the lilies, meditate and contemplate the role of worry in my life. I’m going to reverse the logic of a world that tells me I have to work until I drop. I want to be Mary, not Martha.
And when Easter Sunday comes along, I am going to celebrate the beauty of new life - how resilient we can be and how beautiful it is to be alive in this crazy world. I want to be like the birds and the lily - beautiful just because I am, not because I do.