Lenten Love Letters*
February 22nd, 2012

I’ll go ahead and say it:  I’m religious.

Now don’t go painting me with your Pat Robertson brush.  I’m not that kind of religious.  Just because I’m religious doesn’t mean I think you should be too.

But my faith is something that matters a great deal to me.  It always has.  I have attended church weekly (for the most part) during every stage of my life – childhood, college, 20-something singleton, newlywed, and today.  (Also, in case you were wondering, no, I don’t believe that regular church attendance is the only way to have an active faith life.  But that’s a topic for another day.)  I frequently fail at my faith.  I sin every day.  I drift from God periodically.  There are times when my faith is more at the periphery than the center of my life.  But it is always there.

I say all this because today is Ash Wednesday.  Today begins the 40-day journey of Lent that marks Jesus’ period of wandering in the wilderness and leading up to His crucifixion.  Within some Christian denominations (Catholic, particularly) it is common practice to give up something for Lent.  As a nod to Christ’s suffering, we forego something that provides us pleasure or comfort so that we may be reminded of said suffering on a daily basis.

As a child I was Presbyterian (to some extent I still am) and Lenten sacrifice was not a part of my upbringing.  When I began attending Catholic prep school in junior high I became more familiar with the practice.  And having had many Catholic friends over the years I’ve become well acquainted with the tradition of Lenten sacrifice.

Here’s my problem with it.  At least as I have seen it practiced, it tends to be more about the technicalities and not so much about Christ.  People give up chocolate candy but still eat chocolate chip cookies because when hidden inside the cookie the chips “don’t count” as candy.  Or they give up cheese except on Sundays because technically Sundays are God’s day and aren’t part of Lent.  Or they give up meat on Fridays (a tradition derived from Middle Eastern fishing cultures where meat was considered a luxury) and instead (ironically) go out for lobster tail or Alaskan halibut topped with a port wine demi glace.  Or, they stick with their chosen sacrifice for a few days, fall off the wagon, and then blow off the rest of the season altogether.

And I’m not quite sure what any of that accomplishes.  For me to go 40 days without sweets would make me cranky, unpleasant, and more focused on planning an Easter menu geared toward saying “stick it!” to Lent than on really observing Christ.  This prospect leaves me cold.  Today, as an Episcopalian (the halfway point between my Presbyterian upbringing and my husband’s Catholic one), I am inclined to bring the observance of Lent into my daily life, but uninspired by the mere eradication of vices.

[Sidebar: If you are an observer of Lenten sacrifice and feel that 40 days without alcohol or red meat really does bring you closer to God, then more power to you.  I certainly don’t mean to insult.  And I’ll be the first to admit that what doesn’t work for one person may be quite successful for someone else.]

There is an alternative, though.  That alternative is to do the opposite.  Rather than take something out of your life to mimic suffering, you add something to your life.  Perhaps you might carve out more prayer time.  Or volunteer at a homeless shelter.  Or become involved with a charity.  It is this path which I will travel for Lent this year.

I will write letters.  Real letters.  I will write and mail one each day of Lent.  This means that 40 people will hear from me in the next 40 days.  They will open their mailboxes to find something unexpected, and hopefully something which will make them happy.  I have been quite blessed with a life filled with wonderful people – family, friends, and colleagues – and far too rarely do I reach out to many of these people to fan the flames that keep a relationship burning.  There is a lot of love in my life, and I would do well to acknowledge it and to express my own love in return.

To be sure, like so many aspects of my faith, I will fail at this too.  There will be days when I forget to write.  Or days when I run out of stamps.  But one thing I will commit to is bouncing back from those failures, rather than allowing them to sabotage my Lenten observance altogether.  Because if there’s one thing that the Christian faith offers, it’s forgiveness.  And if there’s a second thing, it’s redemption.

*Large portions of this post were originally published in February 2010.  Those paragraphs which are reproduced here are as true today as they were two years ago.  My actual Lenten observance plans have been updated to reflect my intentions for 2012.

5 Responses to “Lenten Love Letters*”

  1. Holly Says:

    Gale,
    This is something that I’ve tried (and as you note is probable, failed more times than necessary!) every year since my sophomore year of college when I attened an interfaith Ash Wednesday service and heard this idea. It has always made me feel more like I am walking in Christ’s footsteps when I commit to service than when I sacrifice and suffer. Plus, service is the sacrifice of time, which is one of my most valuable commodities! :)
    hly

  2. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    I was raised Catholic and definitely followed the “give something up” approach to Lent during my childhood. For a little kid, I think the idea of sacrificing something you enjoy (even if you indulge in it on Sundays) can be powerful and a simple way of understanding just a small piece of how Jesus Christ suffered during his days in the desert.

    I don’t observe Lent anymore, but I have taken a similar approach to yours with my New Year’s resolutions. I try to add something positive to my life instead of focusing on bad habits. I love your idea of sending a letter a day. I’ll be interested to see how it goes – and if you end up becoming a regular correspondent as in the days of yore! :)

  3. Gale Says:

    Holly – I think your comment about the sacrifice of time is spot on. That’s what I’m aiming for.

    Kristen – I hadn’t thought about giving something up being an easier way for a child to understand Lent. As we drove to church this morning I tried to explain Lent to IEP (“For a few days of the year we try extra hard to remember how much God loves us”) but he was really only interested in whether or not Daddy was still in the car behind us. I realize that age three is awfully young to understand Lent, and I would never try to explain it to him in its actual terms – wandering in the desert, the crucifixion, and so on. But I will have to put some thought into what is the best way to impart even a fraction of understanding of Lent on a child. Christianity is a difficult thing to teach indeed. Thanks for your thoughts here.

  4. LED Says:

    Gale,
    Your perspective on this is thought provoking. I do appreciate the concept of giving up something and feel it can be beneficial. However, I really clicked with your concept of bringing something IN to your life and the idea of giving time and/or service as a way to experience the other side of the practice of Lent. I particularly love the idea of your writing letters this year..it is a lost art…one that I’m keeping alive with occasional letters to my fiance but not with others (other than cards). Thank you for the inspiration to keep writing – AND- to bring something IN this season rather than give something up. Cause you are definitely right – I would be a big old crabapple if I had to give up my either of my two vices: French Vanilla creamer for my coffee or gum!
    Leigh

  5. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    I really like it when you talk about your faith. And I love the idea – and imagery – of writing letters, real letters. I secretly hope I am a recipient :)