I. love. Lent! I grew up essentially Buddhist, and spent a good deal of time in Zen Buddhist communities. And let me tell you, it can make Catholicism look like a non-stop Mardi Gras! Zen. is. serious. And as a natural contemplative, I loved it. I loved its strict observance of posture, its deep inward focus, and its simple focus on being in the moment. It is a disciplined practice of listening. With that background, the season of Lent felt instantly familiar to me, even as a new Episcopalian; even when the rest of the church year made me feel like a foreign exchange student.
Many people regard the “giving up” of something in Lent, the penitence in Lent, as a downer. Folks are quick to point out that Lent needn’t be restricted to these old practices. Lent can be about adopting positive practices. Lent can be about “adding in” rather than “taking away”. And I agree – even in “giving up”, we are not doing it to be arbitrarily mean to ourselves, but rather to open ourselves to the voice of the Holy Spirit. But I have never felt the need to “brighten up” my Lent. I deeply appreciate the simple beauty of forgoing familiar comforts. I appreciate the real joy to be found in quiet and humble listening.
Perhaps we can learn from our Zen Buddhist siblings. Because while Zen Buddhism is full of austerity and self-discipline, it is ALSO full of humor. Zen is full of absurd stories, stories purposely designed to “short-circuit the rational mind” as one Zen teacher told me once. Stories designed to get our “monkey minds” to implode, leaving us with literally NOTHING to grab onto, nothing to distract us from the simple joy of THIS precious moment. To put that into our Christian language, we are being asked to let go of everything but the simple, pure joy of God’s radiant presence; always pure, always joyful, always loving, and always, always, always enough.
And that is why I never lament the “giving up” in Lent, or feel the need to sugar-coat it (sugar is what I’m giving up this year, by the way). Because we are giving up a passing comfort to make room for the Love of God, for the treasure stored up in Heaven that rust cannot destroy. So welcome to Lent. Amen.