First published in 2002 at School of the Seasons.
When I mention the word “Lent” around my pagan friends, a curious thing happens. I watch as their faces go blank, they look away as if to say, “That’s not for me. That’s something Christians do to mortify the flesh.” Certainly this was the flavor of Lent as it was practiced in the late 1950’s when I was attending St. Bridget of Sweden Elementary School in Van Nuys, California. We gave up a favorite food for six weeks and saved our pennies for the “heathen babies.” But since I’ve been studying seasonal celebrations, I realize that the roots of Lent reach far back in time and are deeply aligned with the energy of spring. So I propose taking another look at Lent, its roots and its potential as a spiritual practice.
The very name of Lent is synonymous with the season, for it comes from the Anglo-Saxon lenctene, meaning the time when the days lengthen. Lent is the 40 days before Easter. Since Easter always falls on a Sunday, Lent always begins on a Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. During the church services held on Ash Wednesday, we listened to a reading which reminded us that we would die “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust”) and then the priest marked our foreheads with a smudge of dark ash (on the third eye chakra, a place also marked with sacred ash in Hindu devotions).
For the next six weeks we were required to give something up, something which was precious to us, that we would miss, something that would build character, for we would have to struggle against temptation as Christ struggled against temptation in the desert while fasting for 40 days and 40 nights. The 40 days of Lent are a significant period. Forty is a magical number which recurs throughout the Bible (Noah floated in his ark for 40 days and nights, the chosen people wandered in the desert for 40 years, Jonah led the citizens of Nineveh through 40 days of penance). But forty is also a magical number in other ways. I’ve heard that it take six weeks to break a habit (or establish a new routine). Six weeks times seven days equals 42 days, almost exactly the same time period as Lent.
But it’s not just the number of days that are significant but their conjunction with the season. In Chinese medicine, spring is the time of the liver, whose energy is change. Haragano, who teaches Wheel of the Year classes in Seattle, says that treatment centers experience higher success rates in spring than at any other time of the year. She attributes this to the incredible energy for change which courses through the earth at this time, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, as Dylan Thomas put it. The sap is rising in the trees, which are budding; the green stalks of crocuses and snowdrops are pushing through the frozen ground. There’s an incredible shift happening which — in those parts of the world which are frozen — manifests in the spring thaw, the breaking up of the contraction of winter.
Lent is the time for making auspicious changes. It doesn’t have to be about deprivation, although that pattern is deeply ingrained in me from my Catholic childhood when I usually gave up cookies or candy for Lent. As an adult, I’ve used Lent as an opportunity to experiment with my patterns with other substances. Giving up alcohol for one Lent eventually led to giving up alcohol altogether for several years. Giving up dairy products, however, did not lead to a permanent change, even though I immediately noticed the return of a certain amount of congestion (which I had previously considered normal) when I began eating dairy again at Easter. Two years ago, I gave up coffee entirely (although not caffeine — my consumption of Darjeeling tea shot up in proportion). Again, although I went back to drinking coffee (hey! I do live in Seattle), I weaned myself from daily coffee consumption and now have a latte only once or twice a week. One year I gave up sugar, probably the most difficult of all. The effect on my energy level was drastic and shocking. The few times I ate sugar (jellybeans at Nawruz, desserts at a Victorian ball), I binged and then felt sick for days afterwards. Now although I’ve put sugar back into my diet, I’m much more sensitive to its effect on my body. I no longer buy cookies or ice cream for late night snacks and I discovered an organic Earl Grey tea that’s so sweet and delicious I can drink it without sugar.
The emphasis on giving up a rich or luxurious food item has deep historical roots. The day before Lent is often called Mardi Gras, which translates as Fat Tuesday, because people gorge on rich, deep-fried foods like doughnuts and pastries on this day. In Russia, the week before Lent is the time of the butter festival when everyone feasts on blinis, pancakes wrapped around fillings. In England, the day before Lent is Pancake Tuesday since pancakes are the food of choice. The recipe for pancakes published in The Compleat Cook in 1671 includes a pint of cream, six new-laid eggs, a pound of sugar and nutmeg or mace. The previous Sunday is Colop Sunday, the last chance to eat collops (chops) before Lent begins. Carnival, another name for the period right before Lent when people splurge on the rich foods and outrageous behavior which will soon be prohibited, comes from Carne (meat) vale (farewell) because Catholics give up eating meat for Lent.
A friend of mine who is a member of a Russian Orthodox church tells me that their restrictions on food during Lent are even more severe than those I experienced in the Roman Catholic church. Lent is like a six-week progressive fast, in which people give up first meat, then a different food item each week, until the week before Easter they are eating only bread and water. This reminded me of the diet I followed (in reverse) the second (but not the last) time I quit smoking. I was following a program outlined by the Seventh Day Adventists which prescribed a strict diet during the first week of not smoking. We were supposed to eat only fruit and fruit juice the first day, then add in vegetables, then grains. Sugar, alcohol and caffeine were all forbidden–triggers for nicotine craving. I was so obsessed with figuring out what I could eat and doing all the preparation involved in preparing fresh fruit and vegetables that I barely missed cigarettes. If you have been considering trying an allergy elimination diet this would be a great time to try it.
If you think about what’s going on in the natural world, these food deprivations make sense. This part of early spring is the most hazardous time of the year for people living close to the earth. The first bitter greens (so prominent a part of spring equinox feasts like Passover and Easter) are just emerging. Fresh eggs, also associated with these feasts, are not yet available; birds are just beginning to nest. The foodstuffs, particularly the salted and smoked meat, that were stored to carry the family through the winter may be giving out. The potatoes and apples left in the cellar are getting soft and of dubious quality. The deprivation of Lent may not be voluntary but a necessity imposed by nature. As Caroline Walker Bynum points out in Holy Feast and Holy Fast, “Fasting is in rhythm with the seasons, scarcity followed by abundance.” By choosing lack, people believed they could induce God to send plenty: rain, harvest and life. As Gregory the Great said, “To fast is to offer God a tithe of the year.”
There is a long tradition of spring purification. Cleansing is part of the action of the tonic herbs of early spring on the body. Also think of spring cleaning. Those who planned to be initiated during the Eleusinian Mysteries in the fall participated in purification ceremonies in the early spring, which included bathing in the sea. When the world is being made anew, we wish to make ourselves new. Yet any change is fraught with danger and difficulty. As a friend of mine said while we were on our way to a ritual, “There is no transformation without change.” Gertud Mueller Nelson in her wonderful book on Catholic ritual comments, “which of us…does not know we must change and fear it, and in that fear come face to face with the mystery of death.” She believes that “conscious engagement of suffering and death forces us to take stock of our gift of life and consider ways of reforming and living our lives more fully and passionately.”
Nelson mentions that a banner displaying the words Vacare Deo (meaning to empty oneself so God could fill one up) was displayed in her childhood home during Lent. Brooke Medicine Eagle assigns the same value to fasting when she describes vision quests in Buffalo Woman Comes Singing.. She writes that when we fast we refrain from taking in on the right side of our experience, thus creating a vacuum in our consciousness. “By our very nature, something else will come in to fill that space.” For Brooke, the vacuum was filled with dreams, visions, clairvoyance, astral travel and revelation, all left-sided events. “The fast,” she writes, “seems to work the same way with all people. It is a brilliant tool for opening ourselves to the Great Mystery and to the Source of Life within our own being.” In discussing how to fast, Brooke Medicine Eagle recommends doing so “not as a punishment or a sacrifice, but as a joyful way to call upon another part of yourself, a way to awaken to Spirit’s voice within you.” Although you can simply move through a regular day without food, Brooke suggests taking a day off, going to a beautiful spot in nature and creating sacred space there where you can spend your time in meditation or centering. “Whatever holes in your life you fill with food — or anything else you’ve included on your fast — will become very obvious when you begin to do without them.”
I know how powerful this practice can be from my experience with another kind of fast: the week of reading deprivation which is part of the twelve-week program described by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. For reasons similar to those described by Brooke Medicine Eagle, Julia Cameron recommends abstaining from reading for one week. For those of you who get your daily dose of words from NPR, listening to talk radio is also forbidden. “Reading deprivations casts us into our inner silence,” a place where we can “hear our own inner voice, the voice of our artist’s inspiration.”
The effects of reading deprivation have been dramatic for me and my students. The first time I did reading deprivation, I got sick. I was indignant and frightened. How could I stay in bed and rest without reading? As a way to soothe my sore throat and get to sleep at night without the soporific of a bedtime novel, I sipped at the lavender brandy I had in my cupboard for medicinal purposes. Since I hadn’t drunk alcohol for several years, I was shocked when I realized that I had replaced my addiction to reading with alcohol. The second time I did reading deprivation, I found myself spending hours obsessively planning: rewriting to-do lists, making ten year plans, elaborating all the tasks necessary to carry out complicated projects. I had never noticed before how much time I spent planning to do things as compared with actually doing them. It was another revelation.
I do reading deprivation every time I teach an Artist’s Way class. Subsequent experiences have not been so dramatic but they have been gratifying. I now look forward to reading deprivation as an oasis in my life which is crowded with things to read. One time while standing at a bus stop, restless and impatient during a reading deprivation week, I went into the nearby florist’s shop and began sniffing all the flowers, trying to come up with words to describe their various scents. I have done some of my best writing during these weeks, which are also usually times of particularly vivid dreams.
This sort of sensory abundance and sensitivity is one of the rewards of the deprivation or purification process of Lent. Lent begins with the excesses of Carnival. It comes to an end with an outburst of joy and indulgence. The Easter feast is a banquet of rich foods, the bounty of spring. The mood of Easter is one of gaiety and celebration–it derives from a Roman festival in honor of the resurrection of Attis called Hilaria.
If you find it difficult to contemplate giving something up for six weeks, just remember that you can indulge at Easter. Knowing that you are abstaining for only a limited period of time makes exercising restraint easier. Plus you can look forward to the excess of Easter. After six weeks of soy milk lattes the year I gave up dairy, I had my first latte breve (made with real cream) on Easter.
For pagans who don’t want to align with Christian holidays, a more natural time for celebrating Lent would be the six weeks between Candlemas and Spring Equinox. In fact, you might work it into your Candlemas pledge, taking a new name which symbolizes the change you want to make.
I’ve focused on giving up substances, but there are many other kinds of changes you can make. Process addictions like planning, worrying, obsessing about love, watching TV, overeating, overworking, are all good candidates. For instance, if you tend to overwork you might want to set some bottom lines ; no working overtime, no working on weekends, no work phone calls at home. I usually try to make a change in a behavior as well as giving up a substance. One year I gave up criticizing (not an easy task for a Virgo). Another year I gave up nagging.
Several years ago, I gave up self-deprivation for Lent. Mostly through working with The Artist’s Way, I had identified a pattern which Julia Cameron calls artistic anorexia which also applied to other areas of my life. I was constantly denying myself simple pleasures with the excuse that I couldn’t afford them, either financially or in terms of time. Perhaps this was a remnant of my Catholic childhood; certainly it’s a prevailing theme in our Puritan culture. I have to admit it was hard to indulge myself every day but it resulted in an atmosphere of permission for pleasure that permeates my life to this day.