Lent graphic by DepositPhoto

Recalibrating During Lent

Recalibrating During Lent

By Patty Bruininks

I don’t know about you, but lately I haven’t been able to turn down the noise that fills my brain.  Unceasing news of wars and unthinkable suffering, the cruel whims of the virus, the seething hatred of cable news pundits, and what seems to be the impending apocalypse of climate change awaken me regularly at two in the morning. I lay in the dark experiencing fear about a future I cannot control, anger towards those determined to thwart justice, and sadness in response to seeing families desperately seeking safety from evil personified. Unable to go back to sleep, I get up and distract myself with social media and Wordle, all the while being bombarded with ads for products that promise further distraction.

But the constant buzzing in my head isn’t just due to the overwhelming issues our species and planet face. It also gets louder when I wonder for the 10th time that day whether God’s creation that is Patricia Bruininks is good enough, or when a parent’s declining health leads me to dwell on my own mortality, while pondering all the mistakes I’ve made (again — at two in the morning, which is never good) — or even when I realize just how BORING my life is compared to people I follow on Instagram.

Yes, I do spend a lot of time thinking about the pain of others, but I must admit that it is dwarfed by obsessing about my own concerns and inadequacies. I seek distraction from my own self-centeredness.

Sometimes I fantasize about running away and living off the grid — some place where there are more bears than people. Someplace where I won’t be averaging nine hours of screen time a day (some of that at two in the morning). Someplace where surely this buzzing will subside.

The Lenten Response

Fortunately, there is another, more practical — and faithful — response to all these distractions of life: the season of Lent.

The church I grew up in celebrated Christmas and Easter, but we did not observe the time in between. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I became familiar with the liturgical calendar.

Thus, my initial understanding of the season of Lent was pretty shallow — you give up a temptation or something important to you as a way to recognize all that Christ gave up for us sinners.  Honestly, it seemed like just another church activity that would inevitably end in failure and shame — after all, if I couldn’t abstain from chocolate for 40 days, what did that say about the lazy, ungrateful person I was?

A New Understanding of Lent

But as my faith has developed and my understanding of human nature continues to grow, I have come to understand Lent in a different way.

Paula Huston, a Benedictine oblate, compares Lent to monastic retreats. In her book, “Simplifying the Soul“, she describes both as a time of “spiritual recalibration.” About the retreats, she writes,

“For the space of a few days I am released from the bondage of complexity.  Amazingly, those few days are enough to help me find my way back to the image of Jesus trudging before me in his dusty sandals, the man with no place to lay his head.  The sense of joy and relief at once again taking my place in the crowd behind him is palpable. And as usual, until I arrive at the hermitage, I have no idea of how far I have once again strayed off the beaten path.

Instead of humbly following behind Jesus, I’ve let myself get sidetracked by a myriad of temptations: overly ambitious creative projects, delusions about my own importance, worrisome relationships, secret small addictions, stubborn resentments, and a hundred forms of self-indulgence.  The simple life of the hermitage clears my vision enough to see how far I’ve wandered. This is a humbling experience.”

Recalibrating the Soul

Lent, which begins today (Wednesday), also provides a time for recalibration or simplifying of the soul.  It allows us to journey toward humility, a state where we not only refrain from thinking too highly of ourselves but also walk away from the idealistic perfection that leads to self-hatred.

Huston’s book offers up daily Lenten practices that guide one through this time of introspection. These practices are not about self-denial but rather involve introspection and simplification.

Each week focuses on different areas of life where one can practice the spiritual discipline of simplifying their soul. Some practices do involve giving up something such as “turning off your cell phone for the day” as a way to simplify the mind or “covering up the mirrors in one’s home” as a way to simplify care of the body. Others are about being in the moment. Options include “cleaning out a junk drawer or closet” as a way to simplify space or “sitting in silence with a friend” to simplify one’s relationships. And there are practices that encourage readers to add to their life, but in meaningful ways. One can choose to “walk to the store instead of drive” as a way to simplify the use of money or “welcome an interruption” to simplify one’s schedule.

Practice and Meditation

Each practice is accompanied by a meditation. When walking home from the store, ponder how much less you purchased because you had to carry it. When getting ready in the morning without the aid of a mirror, consider how many times a day you catch a glimpse of yourself and the judgmental thoughts that accompany those glances. Not to mention the resources mined and advertised to improve your outer self while ignoring your inner beauty. 

I’ve incorporated this book into my Psychology of Consumerism course as a way of practicing what we didn’t know we needed to practice. This allows us to separate ourselves from our consumer culture so that we can critically examine it. Students choose three practices per week and journal about their experiences and the accompanying meditations (and, of course, how those connect to course material). They can do them in any order (while sticking to the topic of that week) and they can modify the practices to suit their own beliefs: it might not make sense for a non-believer to “set up a special place for prayer,” but they can find a spot on campus to meditate on a regular basis. Also, they are not graded on the success of the practice, in case you were wondering about that whole turning off your cell phone for a day thing.

It is always a privilege to read their reflections, and I am often awed by the depth of their insights and dedication to their faith and values. Any frustration I have with “college students these days” evaporates.

It Takes Discipline

Sadly, I may be the queen of “do as I say, not as I do.” I’ve never made a whole-hearted effort to fully participate in the activity alongside them, justifying my laziness with, “well I need time to read and grade all their entries.” But living vicariously through them is not enough; it will not quiet my buzzing brain.  So this season I’ve committed myself to engaging in this spiritual discipline alongside them.

There is so much heartache, so much anxiety, and so, so many distractions that lead only to further degradation of myself, others, and our planet. Desperate for recalibration — and a solid night’s sleep — I look forward to joining my students in observing Lent in this way. I’ll start by cleaning out that junk drawer, pondering why I’ve kept what I’ve kept and making room for what’s really important.

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