How both spiritual and non-spiritual people can benefit from Lenten observance
Lent is a common practice in our society due to us being founded and established on Judeo-Christian values. As a Christian campus, there are many students who partake in this practice, for religious reasons and health reasons. But what is Lent?
According to 40acts.org, “Lent is the six week period leading up to Easter. It’s one of the most important times of year for many Christians around the world, particularly those within the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox traditions, held at a similar level of importance to Advent – the build up to Christmas.” The tradition of Lent is giving up something that is meaningful to someone, like sweets, video games or social media, and not having any access to it until Easter. The significance of that is when Jesus did not eat for forty days while wandering the desert. There are students of Catholic backgrounds on our campus that practice Lent, and usually wear ash on their forehead on Ash Wednesday, which is the start of Lent.
In Catholic and similar traditions, the emphasis is often a spiritual one; it is a time for removing those loves and desires that might separate us from or otherwise get in the way of our relationship with God. It is easy to get caught up in worldly pleasures and seeming needs, but Lent offers us the opportunity, through voluntarily giving up something that holds that significance for us, to realize that it is faith and fidelity to God that is the ultimate source of happiness. Everyone has experienced the feeling of having something you are used to taken away; it often surprises us how much panic or anger this can prompt, and how dependent we have grown on the given thing. Regardless of whether it is, in and of itself, good or bad, sacrificing it for the forty days of Lent allows us to see clearly how fleeting that sort of thing really is.
What exactly is given up will therefore naturally vary by person, based on their personal desires and failings. Sometimes it is a sinful (or borderline-sinful) practice that is abandoned; at other times, it is something (like chocolate or a certain kind of drink) that we may like a bit too much—it doesn’t necessarily damage our relationship, but it is a significant enough presence in our lives that we would notice (and miss it) if it were gone. It is a highly personal choice and, in the Catholic faith, at least, a largely voluntary one—while avoiding meat on Fridays and fasting on certain holy days is required, the Lenten sacrifice is an exercise of purley personal devotion. That it is encouraged so strongly (and seen by so many) as a requirement is, perhaps, evidence of the spiritual importance it can have for us.
For those who for one reason or another cannot give something up, there is also the option of taking something up. This can amount to extra daily prayers, regular (or increased) donations to charity or any amount of volunteer work during the Lenten season. The focus is still the same—to bring ourselves closer to God—but rather than doing it by removing a potential distraction, it is done by adding something more spiritual or beneficial to others into our lives, to try and live actively more like Christ.
In both of these cases, it is hoped that the lesson, either of something’s importance or its unimportance, is carried with and acted upon by us in the months between the end of this Lent and the start of the next. It is fundamentally a season of spiritual self-improvement.
While Lent is a common practice in the Christian faith, however, it has also started to gain popularity for those who aren’t especially religious. There are many health benefits to Lent, as giving up something that would normally be considered unhealthy obviously will help to produce a healthier lifestyle. One of the most popular things given up for Lent is sweets; we all know that too many sweets are not at all healthy for the body. According to an article from Talking Points Memo, “Like any religious fast, Lent forces you to think about what you’re eating, why you’re eating it, and whether it’s tied to your goodness as a person. It provides an opportunity to believe you can start fresh.”
A part of that starting fresh may also involve the addition of new behaviors. You could spend more time with your family, or finally start that exercise regimen you’ve been planning. In the same vein as the religiously-inclined, you could also use this opportunity to help others through charity and volunteering. All of these activities have been shown to improve and enrich both our lives and the lives of those around us, and Lent offers a convenient season for us to pursue this especially. Many other religious seasons have been used for great good even by those who do not happen to believe—there is no reason that the time leading up to Easter should be any different.
No matter our spiritual beliefs, Lent can give us an opportunity to try to better our lives in some way and so has something for everyone. There is always room for improving our lives in any dimension, and trying to make some sort of sacrifice is a way to push our minds and bodies towards that end.
Authors: John Hipskind and Luke Fredette