Affirmation: Lent is a time dedicated to strengthening my faith.
Today, February 14th, is not only Valentines Day it’s Ash Wednesday. For Catholics it marks the beginning of one of the holiest seasons of the church year. Practicing Catholics go to Mass or at least to a Lenten service and have a thumbprint of ashes smeared on their forehead. The words accompanying the ritual are "Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return." (Genesis 3:19) The ashes normally come from the palms that were blessed for the previous Easter season. At my church, St. Michael the Archangel, here in Cary, NC, the practice includes sprinkling holy water into the dishes holding the ashes. That makes them pastier and then the priest or the minister can really smear them on. I don't remember them being so black and pronounced when I was a child. We are then encouraged not to rub or wash them off until we would normally cleanse our faces. I found myself eating lunch today at a local cafe and was charmed by the number of Catholics who proudly proclaimed their faith that day. Let's face it, it's hard to miss a big black smudge on someone's forehead and it's the perfect opportunity to share your faith without saying a word.
I live in the Bible Belt which I understand to mean we have a lot of practicing Christians in this area, many of whom are evangelical. They have a mission to convert the world, the whole world to Christianity. This is not the place to live if you are wishy-washy about your faith, unless you're living in Chapel Hill. (That's a little hint for anyone reading this who is thinking of moving to our beautiful state.) I've lived in the Bible Belt now since 1976. First, I was in Cincinnati, Ohio for ten years and now, I'm here. How is that different from other parts of the United States? If you look at one of USA Today's graphs, you will see that the south-east and mid-west areas are shaded darker when the shading represents the number of people calling themselves Christians. As the map expands to the west, California, Oregon etc., the shading becomes lighter and lighter. My experience with this part of the world has been wonderful. I have noticed that the people here who are working to be faith filled are kind, caring and compassionate. I don't think one need be religious or perhaps even spiritual to have those qualities but when your faith is an integral part of your life, I believe you are enjoined to raise yourself up to a higher level of responsibility to lead a more exemplary life.
I know all about the hypocrites, those who show up at services all holy and righteous only to lead small, mean lives. My experience has not led me to be surrounded by that type of practitioner. My experience, especially that of living here in NC, has been one of support and kindness and compassion from the people who are actively participating in their faith. Perhaps, I've just been lucky because even some of my friends who don't belong to an established religion are loving and compassionate. Could it be, however, that the God energy of this area has permeated more souls than elsewhere? It's a nice thought. It brings me comfort and hope. Maybe mindfulness in itself encourages people to live lives of caring and service. Supposedly there was a study done many years ago that showed when a Transcendental Meditation seminar was being held, that section of the country had less crime.
Lent is my favorite time of the year. My part of the world is gray and wet and soft right now but I know that in just a few weeks everything will be in full bloom, the Dogwoods, Azaleas, and Daffodils to name a few will come forth and brighten and color our entire area. It goes from dreary to delightful. It's slow and deliberate and if you pay close attention, you can see the metamorphosis taking place. That's what I like to imagine is happening to my inner life too. Lent offers me the opportunity to grow and blossom, to go from dreary to colorful. It's up to me how I use the time. For me, it's a more deliberate time, an opportunity to be even more mindful, than any other time of the year. I always hope the changes I'm making stay with me, as I move into the rest of the year, and hopefully some of my Lenten practices do just that and that's exactly the reason we are called upon to set aside this time to develop more self-discipline and to be of greater service. We are called to pray more, give alms and to practice acts of denial. We are called to be more mindful, more intentional about our lives. It's a practice we could use every day not just during Lent but with Lent comes the deliberate intention to grow our inner lives, to make us and our world kinder, gentler and more compassionate.
The main question at Lent is, "What are you giving up for Lent?" I know I could give up wine or chocolate or some such food item and have the added benefit of reducing my waistline. In 2014, however, I chose a more difficult practice. I decided to give up doubt and now, in 2018, I confess I still have "work" to do. I must say, I feel I am now stronger in my faith than in the past but for me, it seems to be the work of a lifetime. When Oprah interviewed the famed televangelist, Joel Osteen, she asked him if he had ever doubted his belief in Jesus Christ. He emphatically answered, "No." I am still not a Joel Osteen. I am more of a Thomas. After all these many years of practicing my faith I still have my doubts. Let's face it, it's quite a story! That however, is not how I want to live my faith, the promises are too great. I want to believe with all my heart that Jesus Christ is God incarnate and that I can have a personal relationship with Him that will enhance my life and lead me to a place where I reach out to others with pure love. I want to believe that with Him, not only will I and my loved ones have eternal rest and peace, but that this life will be a more rewarding experience. I haven't yet had any direct messages from the spirit world that would allay my doubts but I don't care. This is how I want to live my life and for me it seems to require practice and Lent, my favorite time of the year, offers me that perfect opportunity. "Loving Father, help me to better know and love Your Son. Amen."