Although we are not Catholic, for the past few years my family and I have been observing the ritual of Lent, giving up something for the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter.
Why on earth would we subject ourselves to this if we didn't have to, you ask? That's a good question.
We started, and have kept on doing it for several reasons. One reason is, it's a good way to practice self-denial because it has a start date and an ending date. It's a great way to jump start that diet we've been planning on or finally resolve to omit that treat that we just can't resist for a short time, and that often leads to long lasting results.
In the past years I've given up soda, sweets, soda again, and then there was that fateful year that my teenage son and I decided to give up bread, gluten, wheat, and anything leavened. This took us right into Passover, which we also observe, which nearly killed us.
(Which brings me to an important aside: I always thought that there were 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Well, last year, when we were mourning our breadless-ness, we actually counted the days, and found that there were actually 46 days in between. That's 6 extra days we had been observing for years without even realizing it! After consulting with some Catholic friends they let us in on the loopholes that we were previously unaware of. According to them, to make it 40 days you can:
1. Skip Sundays.
2. End on Palm Sunday rather than on Easter Sunday.
3. Start a week later than Ash Wednesday and end on Easter Sunday.
4. Have 6 "cheat days" within the 46 so that you end up with 40.
These may or may not be in line with strict practicing Catholics and I'm not saying that any of these are right or wrong. I also do not know how or why the original concept of omitting foods or other things for Lent came about. I know it goes way back and most likely had a practical reason for beginning. But I digress...)
I also learned that instead of giving up something, one can choose to add something good for this collective period of time. Some people pledge to exercise every day, some vow to say something kind to at least one person a day, some use it as a way to finally start a regimen or project that they have been putting off.
Whatever a person decides to do, whether it's giving something up or adding something in, I realized that it's the intention behind it that matters. Why a person chooses to do it, and then decides to stick with it, is more important than counting up the days or making sure to take 6 days off so it's "fair."
To that, if we're doing it with the right intention, what does it matter how many days there are?
I do believe that teaching children to follow rituals without always knowing why is important to build strong habits and observances. But as we get older I think it's okay, and even beneficial, to take a look at the things we do blindly, just because we've always done them, and seek a deeper meaning from them.
While Lent was not one of the deprivation customs I observed growing up, (there were others) I have enjoyed participating in it with my family because it's another way we can support and encourage each other. Having sympathy for my son who chose to not eat the doughnuts someone brought to school. Commiserating with my daughter as we drank water with our pizza instead of soda. It helps us to bond as a family, especially as we have the discussions leading up to Lent, talking about what each of us is going to give up this year and, more importantly, WHY.
The impetus for us starting a few years ago was something that my husband had heard about called 40 Days of Faith. People who typically do not observe Lent take this holy time to omit or add things to their lives as a show of faith and to connect more spiritually with their faith, whatever it may be. It has been transformative for a lot of people, as taking that small time every day in the midst of their craziness, to connect with their spiritual side makes a big difference in their daily lives. It makes them more mindful overall, and couldn't we all use more of that these days?
When I have shared with friends our practice of observing Lent in our own way, I've been met with confusion and negative judgement. People cannot understand why we would voluntarily choose to do this, especially when we have no religious connection to it. When I've tried to explain our reasoning, they just dismiss us as being foolish or weird. Maybe next year for Lent they should give up being so judgmental, huh?
So, what am I giving up this year? Nothing food-wise. (Last year I started with an 11 day cleanse, which went right into Lent, which went right into Passover - as far as I'm concerned, that was enough for this year too!) Instead I have decided to abstain from my bad habit of throwing my clothes on the floor at the end of the day. A week and a half in and I can tell you that my closet floor has never been cleaner. They say that it takes 21 days to build a habit that sticks and since I'll have double that I'm optimistic that this will become a life-long change. What's great is, every time I hang something back up or throw it down the laundry chute I'm reminded that bad habits can change, people can make positive changes in their lives, and on a grander scale, it reminds me that I have the choice every single day to look at things from a healthy perspective.
For our Lent, we're not depriving ourselves because we're bad and deserve to be punished, we're consciously abstaining from things because that practice makes us better. For 40 days and beyond.