Guess it's a pretty big deal in most of Christendom. Shame that I've never known much of anything about it until this year.
No, it's not a biblically mandated practice. (How much of modern Christian practice is, I ask you?) It's an ancient tradition. The Old Testament Law proscribed similar seasons of solemnity, so there appears to be precedent, however.
So what is Lent? It's a time of reflection and penitence. At our church, it was suggested to consider adding an act of devotion as well as subtracting a vice or a luxury. According to Wikipedia, some traditions advocate "prayer
towards God), fasting (justice towards self), and almsgiving (justice towards neighbour)".
What isn't Lent? Lent isn't a way to "be more spiritual", at least in my experience so far. Instead, it is an opportunity to practice something you normally wouldn't do; to practice self-denial as an exercise, not as a way to make God happy. It's for God to teach me, not for me to be superior. And you're advised *not* to participate in that part of Lent if you're going through a difficult time in your life.
And that's one big difference right there from my old Fundamentalist
past. When I was in Fundamentalism, I was told many things that I should do to "be more spiritual". Usually, there were subtle accompanying messages that the spiritual thing itself made God
happier with me, earned God's favor, and made me spiritually superior.
Certain fads like having a "life
verse" (a single Bible verse that you claimed as your own and quoted at
every opportunity) or having your devotions in the morning rather than at
other times of the day fell in this category. Checking the boxes on these lists somehow made me a truly spiritual Christian. The more I think about it, the sillier it gets.
Anyway, so what did I give up? I gave up meat. Pretty traditional, that. Ok, fine, I have to be honest - I was already temporarily avoiding meat for a medical reason. Cut me some slack, it's my first Lent.
And what did I add on?
I added on prayer beads. (*gasp!!*)
I almost feel guilty admitting it, though I have secretly wanted to ever since I saw a treatise on Anglican Prayer Beads. I won't repeat their excellent explanation here; you all are adults and can read it yourself.
I think the attraction for me was that I've never really been good at praying for any length of time. No matter how guilted I was into forcing myself to do it, I'm just too distractable. It isn't enjoyable in the least for me - probably largely in part because "praying" in Fundamentalism usually meant "asking for a list of things". It never really felt right - though I thought it was just my sinfulness and rebellion. In the halfway-house church I was last in, there was at least an emphasis on including praising God, thanking God, and adoring God just as much if not more than asking God for things. But still, asking for things was the part most felt comfortable with and ended up being the largest participated-in part of prayer meeting.
I finally found some beads that I liked (ie, didn't look like an old person's rosary) and tried them last night.
And you know, I actually enjoyed it. It wasn't pretty - I was still largely focused on memorizing the words, and still trying to find a series of prayers that fits. However, I was pleasantly surprised that the recommendation to pray around the circle 3 times wasn't as onerous as I thought it would be. I found the rhythm relaxing and found the prayers over almost too quickly. I tried two different prayers and discovered that I much preferred a different phrase for each "week" bead rather than the same one 7 times in a row, repeated x 3 more times to complete the circle, and then repeat that circle 2 more times... still too much Fundy in me to find that comfortable or useful.
It's a good mental discipline, but not a painful one, and it helps me focus - not on trying to make myself more "spiritual" - but on God. To get beyond myself to contemplate the Divine.
I continue to be struck by how often that particular concept repeats outside of Fundamentalism: the focus is truly God. Not what I need to do, be, or say. It's a dramatic contrast, and I love it.