Lent and the Unitarian Universalist

Helleborus orientalis, commonly knows as the Lenten rose.

Lent is here, and plenty of Unitarian Bloggers are writing about it. More than writing about it, they’re participating in it, giving up alcohol, changing diets, learning new instruments, forgoing lunches out, and even giving up Unitarian Universalism for the forty days that began Wednesday, March 22, and continue until Easter.  I’m doing…nothing.  At least not yet.

Despite being raised in both Methodist and Catholic churches, the concept of giving something up for Lent didn’t reach me until seventh grade, not coincidentally my first year in Catholic school. I was familiar with Ash Wednesday and all of Holy Week (an extra-long week if you belong to two faith traditions and attend services from both), but the idea of setting something aside for those forty days was new to me. I was a child of the Catholic church of the 1980’s, attending Mass in a liberal, Jesuit chapel. Giving something up was okay, but taking on a new endeavor — a positive habit — was considered just as worthy Lenten commitment for the season. Over ten years of Catholic education (not including graduate school), I gave up pop, swearing, chewing my cuticles, and, if memory serves, chocolate. The cuticle-gnawing habit was no doubt the hardest and most frequently broken.

The particulars on the positives I adopted are fuzzier.  Perhaps that suggests that deprivation leaves a stronger mark than taking on something new, or perhaps simply it’s easier to recall failures involving a habit enjoyed over failures missing a new, less exciting habit acquired. For at least one year during Lent, I committed to daily flossing. I didn’t see it as a world-changing or even faith-shaping event, but my dentist had made it clear that it needed to happen. Lent seemed as good a time as ever.

At the height of my Catholic years, I made other attempts to touch the holy and stay in closer touch with my faith.  In college, I attended daily Mass more often (although never daily), prayed more, and read my Bible more. I can’t say I developed any new permanent spiritual habits during those Lenten seasons, but I can say I thought more about my faith. Perhaps the clearest way to put it is that I lived a bit closer to what I said I believed.

My Catholicism is almost ten years in my past, at least that’s how long it has been since I believed with sufficient force to have my younger son baptized. As I moved through the Episcopal church, to no church, to the Unitarian Universalist tradition, my Lenten and Easter practices gradually dropped away. Ash Wednesday goes unmentioned in my church, although it originates from one of the many traditions from which UUs draw their understanding of the world. With so many sources  from which to find truth, it’s no wonder Lent didn’t make the sermon circuit at my UU church this year.

Perhaps it should have, though. A time of repentance and of turning thoughts to right relations with others is a theme in many religions. Lent shares a focus on atonement with Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year where fasting and prayer accompany atonement to God and others. The Islamic Ramadan, a month of fasting by day with time to spiritually reflect, pray, do works of charity. Atonement is part of Ramadan, but the main focus is on a right relationship with God. Eastern religions prescribe atonement and repairing relationships, too.  Hindu teachings address atonement and penance rituals and practices, including charity and fasting. Buddhists focus on atonement to others and forgiveness of others with a focus on loving kindness and compassion. If we claim to take our sources as routes to truth, we’d be remiss to ignore the themes of these religions’ opportunities to do both inner and outer work.

I see two paths for the UU and Lent. The first follows the traditional fasting paths. Use Lent to rid one’s self of a bad habit. Six weeks without meat, processed foods, coffee, multitasking while eating, or multiple hours in front of the computer or TV could make for long-term changes to one’s life. Or, they may not. That time away from something desired, however, does remind us that we can take more control our minds than we often think we can. Our minds are slippery, wily things, and the act of stopping an habitual action, over and over, can be a step to a bit more mastery of our ever-wandering thoughts.

The second path looks outward as well as inward. It could bring us out of ourselves in into deeper connection to the world. Perhaps this season can offer a chance to reflect about then act on the principles we hold as true. The seven principles offer fine guidelines for living in this world and are well worth forty days of consideration and conscientious action. Here’s the list of what UU congregations (and, I would hope, individuals) affirm and promote:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. (UUA)
What would this second practice look like? Think of Ben Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues. Franklin didn’t try to address them all at once.  Rather he took one per week on which to focus his thoughts and actions.  He admits he often fell short, but he continued to try. Seven principles in six weeks provides six days per principle.  Six days to reflect on a particular principle and to watch one’s thoughts actions during that time, working to act in the world in ways more in concert with the values of our faith.
So how to I as a UU respond to Lent?  I’m taking the second path, a reflection on each principle in turn with a focus on acting on each principle in the world. I’m sure I’ll stumble plenty of times along the way. That’s okay. There’s a reason seasons of atonement return year after year. We have short memories and revert easily to old, comfortable ways. Perhaps, I’ll find a bit more peace within myself, for that would be sweet.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to touch the world a bit more softly along the way. Now that would be divine.
For some other views on Lent, see the following:
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2 thoughts on “Lent and the Unitarian Universalist

  1. I love the reference to Ben Franklin’s system to evaluate himself on his performance with respect to his 13 virtues. There is a desire for continual improvement that I love about his system…it mirrors my work with quality management systems. There is an excellent primer for self examination in Ben’s autobiography. I actually delivered a sermon and exercise for my UU Havasu church based on Ben’s system. Also, I love that Ben didn’t just do this during Lent. He repeated his cycle of self examination throughout the year. I like the idea of each week, each day, each moment as a chance to do better, be better.

    I also experienced many Catholic lenten seasons growing up…I miss the ritual of examining my vices annually and giving something up as a chance to break a bad habit or change a counterproductive behavior.

    This year, I have chosen to exercise at least 10 minutes a day for Lent (so far, so good and I have been averaging 20 minutes). A bit of a shallow lenten promise, but hopefully I will develop a healthier lifestyle that will lead to more energy to work on continually improving in other areas.

    • Thanks, Briana, for introducing me to Franklin’s system several years ago. Perhaps that’s a sermon a certain UU church up here might appreciate. Hmm.

      Hurray on your Lenten success thus far! Never underestimate the value of a single, small change to alter one’s path. Yours is a commitment I’m overdue to make myself. Yay, you!

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