Today is my favorite day of the liturgical year. Yes, I know I'm strange.
Once upon a time, I celebrated Lent all by myself. I wasn't part of any faith community--I just liked the idea of giving up something and using that voluntary fast as a way of focusing on my relationship with God. (I somehow kept that relationship, even when I jettisoned church.)
Every year, I gave up Cokes and dessert. In some ways, I guess that seems kind of silly--but since I ingested both on a daily basis, giving them up made me think about God a LOT. And I fasted for the entire season of Lent, because no one told me that Sundays were feast days. Since I only went to church once a year on Ash Wednesday, and I didn't grow up in a catholic tradition, I didn't know.
I regret to report that my Lenten fasts were much more effective when I did them outside the church than they have been in the 13 years I've been an Episcopalian. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe because I was fasting in isolation. I didn't have a community of people with whom I could joke and moan about my minor deprivations. Fasting was not expected of me, either. In the tradition in which I grew up, I never even heard of Lent or fasting (except what I read in the Bible)--they would have been considered Catholic (picture that being said in a whisper with lips pursed and eyebrows raised), which, of course, meant "very, very bad" and not at all Christian.
In recent years, I have had difficulty deciding what to do as a Lenten discipline--and often I have failed at my intentions. Some years I took on additional spiritual practices. Others, I gave up something that felt more "weighty" than Cokes or dessert. Rarely did I succeed in practicing my discipline all the way through Lent (even with feast days!) without throwing my hands up in defeat.
Now before I start getting lectures about the purpose of Lent, let me say this--I KNOW the purpose of Lent. I totally agree with our friend Margaret--Lent is about living a Resurrection Life. And I am still working on finding ways to support myself in doing that.
That is why I love Lent--even the penitential aspects of it. Lent supports me on my walk with God because it makes me mindful--not just of my sins, which are many...but of my longing for God. As far as I have fallen short of my intentions in the past, they mean something. Even my failures mark me as someone who loves God so much that I can't quite seem to give Her up.
So I have been thinking about what things might strengthen my love for God--and how people in my life might actually know that I love God.
My first intention was born last weekend, when I made a shocking discovery.
I hardly ever read anymore.
By that, I mean I hardly ever read BOOKS anymore. I spend a good portion of my days reading things on the intertubes, but I--who used to be a voracious reader of books--have only read a few in the last couple of months. And those have been re-reads of some of my old childhood favorites.
I made this discovery while I was rearranging my bookshelves. When I moved into this house last January, I had a rollicking case of pneumonia, and I remember very little about the move itself. The books were among the very few things I unpacked, and in my feverish state, I simply threw them up on the shelves, without rhyme or reason. And so, for the past year, I have been heard cursing loudly every time I tried to find some reference I needed for my Education for Ministry class.
Last weekend, I decided to fix that. I started categorizing books, which meant I had to pull most of them off the shelf. And I was dismayed to realize that I have a fine collection of books--especially theology books--that I've never read.
Some of my most intense moments of spiritual connection or insight have come from reading. I get a lot of really wonderful insights and inspiration from the things I read on the Web--but tearing through all the blog entries in my Google Reader doesn't really count as thoughtful spiritual practice for me.
So today is the day I take a deep breath, slow down, and start reading books again--books that I've been wanting to read because I think they will add something to my relationship with God. Today is the day that I start once again to exercise the mental muscles I need to wrestle intelligently with my faith, and to inform that faith as I pass it along to others.
To be honest, I really started on Sunday. I finished a book of essays by Alan Lightman, A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit. (If you haven't read his book, Einstein's Dreams, I highly recommend it. This one was good too.) I am a science geek, and I actually find much that is spiritual in the science reading that I do. Astronomy and physics both speak strongly of God to me--a notion I'm sure would appall some of the scientists I read!
Now I'm starting on Kathleen Norris' new book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life. Norris' work has always resonated for me, and this book promises to do so as well. I have had my own experiences with acedia and I'll probably be blogging on that in the future.
Other books in the pile for Lent include our own Jane's When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life (that one I've already made a dent in, but I got sidetracked for some reason), Verna Dozier's The Dream of God, and John Spong's Jesus for the Non-Religious. If you have any other suggestions, I'd love to hear them.
This entry is already too long as it is, so I'll talk about my other intentions later. For now, I am headed out to church, where Dear Friend will mark my forehead with ashes and we will enter this holy season together. "Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return."
It is hard to feel penitential when I feel so much joy in my life these days--but I am reminded that the dust of which we are made is stardust. Each of us, in our best moments, reflects the dazzling brilliance of the stars from which we come--and the love of the One who made us all.
This Lent, may you discover that stardust within yourself. May you shine like the star you are. Radiant. Joyful. Beloved.