Saturday, March 27, 1999

Lent a time for listening to the soul's voice

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It is the final week of Lent, a subject on which, some of us believe, all too little is written.

        The six-week period, which begins Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter, is an important time of spiritual reflection for Christians.

        But like many other things of value, Lent is being trivialized away.

        Once it meant a period of deep spiritual solemnity, as early Christians prepared to join the church, a perilous act that required great courage.

        Today, the word is more popular as a punch line than a religious observance. “I gave that up for Lent,” is sure to draw a laugh. The more trivial — or raucous — the that, the better.

        Even some Christians who say they observe Lent do it by giving up sweets or caffeine, habits that may have more to do with weight reduction or stress management than spiritual reawakening.

        Others, within the Christian church and outside it, ignore the topic altogether. To them, Lent is a downer, with its emphasis on death, crosses and deprivation. Much easier to concentrate on Mardi Gras, skip the maudlin stuff and move right on to Easter.

        But the church calendar is there for a reason, says the Rev. Don Dixon, of Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church. “You can't jump from Christmas to Easter without that little period, that time to concentrate on things of the spirit.”

A time to reflect
        Many religions designate a sacred time to be set aside for reflection, rededication and atonement. Out of them can come direction, balance and a more benevolent view of the world.

        “You come into yourself to come out of yourself,” says the Rev. Rob Jack, a Catholic chaplain at Jewish Hospital who teaches at the Athenaeum of Ohio in Mount Washington. “It is a chance to orient ourselves to the one who made us.”

        Whether religious in nature or not, contemplative periods soothe the human psyche.

        “Even in the secular world, people need to take stock, to reflect on their lives,” says the Rev. Mr. Dixon. “We all have times when we realize we don't measure up. We all need grace and mercy.”

        Lent, then, is that rarest of things in a frenzied modern world — a quiet time to take one's honest measure.

A time of challenge
        Far from being trivial, Lent, taken seriously, is a challenge. Father Jack calls it “a risk.”

        “You make a vow to yourself that somehow, after 40 days, your life is going to be different,” he says.

        Just what will change, and how it will occur, is a matter between the Christian and God.

        Some churches encourage extra times of fellowship, or acts of charity. The Catholic Church emphasizes prayer, fasting and the giving of alms.

        Rather than restrictive rules to follow — “I gave up meat for Lent” — they are meant as an invitation to place the spiritual above the material.

        They provide the chance to lift one's mind and heart above everyday concerns. And, if indeed something is “given up,” or some act taken on, it is with the aim of spiritual discipline, or helping those in need.

        Even the somber themes of the religious period — rejection, betrayal, death — are meant for examination and, ultimately, spiritual liberation.

        “We cannot get to Easter Sunday without Good Friday,” says Father Jack. “We have to learn to deal with suffering. We have two choices — we can run away in fear, or face it head on and be changed by it.”

        And that is what Lent, observed well, promises above all.

        Change. Growth. Renewal.

        The paradox of finding joy in the midst of sorrow, of lifting life from the ruins of death, of discovering in spiritual silence the clearest voice of the soul.

        It is a welcome gift, well worth 40 days' investment. Ultimately, Lent isn't about “giving up” at all, but indeed about all that can be gained.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at the Enquirer, 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202.