Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The big 4-0: Lent for the modern mind

Whether or not you subscribe to the original doctrine of Lent, the ancient rite has benefits we can all appreciate. So please temporarily suspend any disbelief you have in God, god, Jesus, and other biblical prophets (no different than you would do if watching a film or reading a novel). Whether or not these figures are fictional, there is something we can learn from their stories. True learning takes effort, which could explain why the ritual of Lent hasn’t been taken up by society at large. We’ve gotten lazy, and since we no longer put in the work, we no longer reap the rewards.

One can usually count on Hallmark and Hollywood to pervert seasonal subtleties into commercial projects. But neither has embraced Lent’s profit potential, perhaps because this period is viewed as dismal rather than festive. If you walk down Hallmark’s aisles you won’t find many cards wishing you Happy Lent. It’s difficult to find portrayals of Lent in popular cinema. Once you weed out the overtly religious films, you’re left with 40 Days and 40 Nights (the abrasive Josh Hartnett movie about a man who eschews sex for Lent) and Chocolat (the lovely Juliette Binoche film about a woman who refuses to renounce chocolate, Lent be damned). Oddly enough, Binoche’s character seems to understand Lent more than Hartnett’s. The purpose of Lent is not to deny oneself just because, but to renew. As one church sign quite rightly put it, Lent is “forty days of renewal.”

The traditional work of Lent is prayer, penitence, almsgiving, and self-denial. This antiquated diction reeks of deprivation and does little to market the Lenten concept to the modern soul. But I refuse to believe that Lent is no longer relevant. If anything, our society of overindulgence, consumerism, and media overload could use a Spartan awakening. Deprivation can help us realize joys we already have – food tastes much better when we’re truly hungry. I’m not sure most of us even know what true hunger is anymore. We need to remind ourselves of hunger to we can be reminded of satisfaction. We have a societal obsession with happiness…is that because (thank you, Alice Munro) we have too much happiness? If we are in fact overstimulated, a little deprivation may be the answer to our happiness quest.

I’ve updated the four cornerstones of Lent to make them more digestible: thanksgiving (not prayer), resolution (not penitence), compassion (not almsgiving), and truth (not self-denial). I use Lent as a time to sharpen my senses and anticipate spring. Giving thanks for what I have, resolving to be a better person, harbouring compassion instead of judgment, and acknowledging the validity in every moment helps me to sharpen my senses in a way that saying Namaste, confessing my sins, giving expired canned goods to the food bank, and denying myself Shiraz simply do not.

This year, I’m focusing on a different sense for each week of Lent. For six consecutive weeks, I’m taking seven days to contemplate sight, sound, taste, feel, smell, and thought (yes, I consider the intellect to be a sixth sense). I’m taking the emphasis off denial and deprivation and putting it on sensory experience. I might even drink more wine – as long as I take the time to appreciate it with all my senses. My hope is that through heightened attention to the senses I can incorporate thoughtful deprivation and achieve equilibrium. It seems artificial to drink absolutely no wine for forty days and then guzzle a bottle a day for the week following Easter Sunday. Isn’t it a better appreciation of Bacchus’s gift to enjoy a moderate glass (or two) a day during Lent and savor it with all my senses?

Sticklers for accuracy will rightly point out that this is not the original, Catholic definition of Lent. They may accuse me of distorting the tradition for my own modern mind. They’re right, but I’m not going to forgo the opportunity to learn and develop just because I’ve confused the definition. Lent doesn’t have to be all or nothing, let’s just make it something again – whatever that means for you.

Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

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