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.