I remember hearing these words every Ash Wednesday and as a child what it meant is that I would get ashes on my forehead and would be embarrassed in public. Lent was the start of 40 days of giving up something that you really liked, not eating meat on Fridays, and going to church much more frequently, both at my Catholic school and from my Catholic home.
While I do believe in God, I am currently pretty ambivalent about the the Roman Catholic Church, although most of my family remains quite devout. I respect their beliefs, even if I don’t share many of them, as they are the kind of people who practice what they preach – something I appreciate from a follower of any religion. The Catholic Church has been a large force in social justice movements and has helped many people in spite of more than a few historical moments (including some today) where power has been abused and unjust liberties taken with person and property.
However, this post is not really about what I think about the Church I was raised in or what my family believes. It is about my belief it is good to give up the things we like for periods of time. Even if you are an atheist, self-denial helps build discipline and power of will. Giving up the things you like helps you think about what controls you. If you have enough that you have the choice to give up something, you have more than many people in the world. It is free will in action. It is also good for spiritual reflection, to help clear distractions.
If you are a religious person, most different faiths have periods of “giving up” or fasting as a method of spiritual improvement. Followers of Islam have Ramadan, a month long fast that is a time of spiritual reflection and increased devotion and worship. Catholics and some other Christian denominations have Lent -the 40 day preparation of the believer—through prayer, penance, repentance, alms giving, and self-denial for the celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection on Easter. The most important day of fasting for the Jewish is Yom Kippur, a time to seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings.
And when your fast or period of self denial ends, it is time for celebration! It is time for gratitude for how much you have and maybe the start of some better habits, if you are giving up something that is not good for you. If you are the cynical type, you could use this time as a diet backed by spiritual reinforcement, which may be easier to keep because it is for a set period of time, not “the rest of your life”. :-)
What am I giving up for Lent? I don’t wish to say on this blog, but I know it will definitely take some discipline on my part. And if I can do it, I will be the better for it, come Easter. And if I can continue to do it, well, I will be the better for it for even longer.