It seems that the Lenten season for me has been an altogether odd time. I’ve withdrawn somewhat from church activities and found it increasingly hard to get input and help from the 20s/30s group I’m supposed to be moderating. Also, the continuation of cold, bad weather have made me less eager to go outside, despite the lengthening of the days. Perhaps I’m on my own little time apart in the wilderness, but it seems that Lent should be a season of getting closer to God, and I feel I’ve failed that in isolation as well.

But there are still touches of grace and contemplation. At a recent classical concert I attended, I realized how much beauty there has been in the name of religion. Looking at the Western world, I see music, painting, and architecture all developed for the glory of religion. I think about Eastern thought, developed alongside religious practice. I think about the way politics and religion have mixed, both for the betterment (Mother Theresa) and the detriment (the Crusades) of mankind. True, these things probably could have happened even without religion, but it’s uplifting to think something I like spurred those good parts. At that same concert, I found out that Mike didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘hosanna’, which I translated as meaning ‘praise’, or something similar. I was not all that sure about a concrete definition myself, so I decided to look it up, and it does mean praise or acclamation.

Also the concert reminded me about what I know and love about my home church.  I miss the Christmas Eve services with the sactuary lit only by the light of a thousand tiny small candles.  I love the symbolism of taking those tiny lights back with us into our lives – I never want to blow mine out.  Next week I will once again miss our congregation ending the service by singing the Hallelujah Chorus.  The thought of all those voices lifted in song, a powerful wave of sound and togetherness, moves me.  While it’s true that some of us sing better than others, the general cacophony does serve to blur out the flaws any individual voices might have.  Mostly we’re on-pitch anyway – I’ve heard the musical rending that is Chinese church, and I’m not afraid to renew my amazement at our combined voices in the face of that.  Despite our individual shortcomings, for moments like that chorus on Easter Sunday we are all of us beautiful.

But in the end I’m left with nagging worry. Are these little moments enough? Is my life singing to God or with God, or am I just going through the motions? A part of that is guilt I feel from shirking responsibilities that are becoming onerous, but a part of it runs deeper as well. I never want to be the type of Christian who goes to church, gives some money, and thinks that’s enough. I want to learn. I grow. I want to never stop questioning my life and really dig into what it means. I want to feel filled up in faith, and a part of that means continually losing and then reaffirming my relationship with God. Without some of that slipping, there’s no contrast to tell me where I stand. Still, the times in my life like this one when I’m not exactly where I want to be still leave me feeling shaky and unstable in myself.

Fat Tuesday.

I had forgotten today is the day before the beginning of Lent, the day before one of the holiest seasons for Christians.  Then I was looking at people’s blogs and realized everyone was posting about ashes and pancakes and stuff.  I felt ashamed for a moment for forgetting one of the holiest seasons of the year.  But then, that’s what Lent is all about – helping us to remember.  Helping us to live a little more faithfully, and perhaps a little more prayerfully, every day.  Lent is a season of preparation yes, and of remembrance, yes.  But most of all for me it has significance in helping me to slow down the hectic pace of my life and just breathe a little bit.

A part of what Lent is all about for me is taking some time to re-evaluate.  This is not necessarily tearing down the various pieces of my life and examining them.  I do that enough on my own, worrying over what I could or should be doing.  It’s more about being generally more aware of my surroundings, possibly enjoying them a bit, and giving my mind the space to think differently for awhile.  I think this is why prayer and meditation and ritual are so important in a variety of religions.  It is in that sacred space, that time set aside for worship or other religious purposes, that allows the mind to function.  Note I said mind, not brain – this is about ontological levels of thought, rather than physiology.  I feel like the mind needs that different level of functioning, that freedom to wander, to ponder, to consider slowly or vibrate to a different pitch which religious practice gives.  I’m not sure what this different level of functioning is, or what it looks like under scientific conditions, but it’s there.  It’s there in studies that show a meditation practice promotes general health, or that prayer can induce healing for the prayer or prayee.  It’s the same kind of mind stretching that makes people say it’s good exercise for the mind to do crossword puzzles or suduko.

I’m also not saying that such a benefit is dependent on religious practice only.  The same sort of stretching is no doubt a result of a variety of activities – art, or dance, or music can probably create it.  Maybe even a good book can cause it, or a solitary walk in the woods.  As Maude says, “Ahh, life!”

Ultimately though, that still leaves me with a question about Lent.  Specifically about the day before the official start of Lent, which seems to no longer be on calendars.  The day goes by a variety of names:  Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day.  In some places it grows out to a longer-than-a-day gala event:  Festival, Mardi Gras.  Though I’m no historian, I’m pretty sure it all started with the Catholic church and the fasting that must be done for Lent – people had to get all of that old milk, eggs, and flour out of their houses before the start of the Lenten Season.  What else were they going to do?  They had a big party with lots of pancakes.  The question is, how do I fit this gluttonous, celebratory holiday in with the rest of Lent, which values reflection, solemnity, and fasting?

It all goes back to that different level of mind.  Those who practice meditation know just how distracting it can be to attempt to empty your mind.  There are always distractions crowding in, many of them unavoidable.  One common habit to overcome this distraction is to focus on a single object, idea, or word.  That focus can be intense enough to drown out other voices – gradually the focus is allowed to fade away.  The same thing can be said of Fat Tuesday – its bustle, its complications, its joyful an boisterous nature are all meant to be enjoyed and loved for what they are – a spontaneous and needed release.  And then, gradually, the focus on that joy can fade away, leaving us silent, calm, and aware, ready for a different state of mind.

The Conherency of Mormons

As I struggle in my own faith, I am troubled by a variety of belief structures different from my own. Vehement atheists who I picture as scary for their anger. Mormons who come a-knocking. Scientologists. And then, I am occasionally struck by shades of light from these different faith traditions, struck that they too may have valid reasons for their crazy beliefs and that I should not be so quick to judge without knowing more.

I have known a few Mormons in my day, and I can attest to the fact that they aren’t all crazy. Some of them are even intelligent. That doesn’t mean I haven’t found all the beehives and golden plates a little off-putting, but it means that I have approached new Mormons I meet with a degree of rationality I might not have with others. And then stories like this one remind me why that approach is valid. I wanna talk to this guy. I think he’s someone who would give me a reasonable understanding of his own faith and teach me about what Mormonism could mean, rather than the stereotypes I have regarding it. It gives me hope for a faithfully discerning world, despite differences of religion or belief.