After having been out of Catholic school for over 8 years, I still choose to participate in Lenten practices year after year. For those who don’t know, Lent is the period of about 6 weeks prior to Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday, which falls on February 14 this year. It’s supposed to be a time of penance and preparation for the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
I think it might surprise people that I still participate in Lent because I don’t attend mass or really acknowledge any other Catholic practices, and there are certainly pieces of Catholic doctrine I wholeheartedly disagree with. In fact, I don’t even really identify as Catholic as much as I just say that I was raised Catholic. I even went through Penance, Eucharist, and Confirmation as part of my schooling. (FYI, my Confirmation name is Cecilia, after the patron saint of music.)
My idea of what “religion” is has evolved throughout the years. In the United States, you belong to one religion, and only that one religion. And if you realize you want to practice a different religion, you convert or denounce you current religion. However, this idea changed when I was in college.
When I was taking a Japanese class at my college, my professor told us that if you asked a native Japanese person, “What religion are you?” the question simply would not make sense culturally. Less than half of the population actually identifies as part of an organized religion. In Japan and other parts of the world, there is no singular religion. For example, in Japan, individuals may practice Buddhism, Shintoism, and even Christianity, and this is not seen as “conflicting.” Instead, individuals will choose to practice portions of each religion as appropriate, using religion to serve themselves as people instead of people serving the religion as an institution. For example, one might visit a Shinto temple on New Years, but also have a Christian wedding. I’m sure there are many more poignant examples, but this is what my professor explained to my class.
So I took this idea of being able to hold multiple religious and spiritual practices in my head, and applying the practices or doctrine that resonated with me the most. After all, the formation of religion was meant to serve the people, not the other way around. So instead of feeling like I have to attend mass every Sunday, I participate in parts of Catholicism that best serve me as an individual. And one of those things is Lent.
Lent, for me, is a time to practice self-restraint, control, and is a time to intensely focus on personal inner transformation. Many people practice self-constraint in the form of certain foods, as a way of imitating Jesus’ fast in the desert for 40 days during which he was tempted by Satan. I still do this, though my rationale for abstaining from certain foods is not based in religious doctrine as much as they are based in health and science.
For those who are curious, here’s a pretty complete list of what I challenge myself to do during Lent, starting from most challenging to least challenging (aka what I do every year). I have also added my rationale for each item.
- Abstain from eating out with friends. I wanted to do this for two reasons: 1) a financial incentive to spend less money and 2) to connect and bond with my friends in genuine and creative ways, such as cooking together, hiking, or simply just hanging out.
- Abstain from wearing any face makeup. As I have gotten more invested in my own skincare, I’ve wanted to continue making progress. While makeup is not inherently bad as long as you wash it off, it can still be counterproductive. Additionally, this is way of me becoming more comfortable to showing off my imperfections. Did you know: I actually wear face makeup not to hide my skin flaws, but actually because I blush a lot and very extremely? Now people will really know when I’m embarrassed or nervous, and that’s what the challenge is really about.
- Abstain from red meat. This one is actually hard to me because as a Filipina, a lot of my favorite dishes have red meat in them. However, I am painfully aware of the effect the beef industry has on climate change. Did you know that methane gas is over 20X more impactful on the Earth than CO2 from your car? Yeah. The best way to fight climate change is actually to just minimize red meat consumption.
- Abstain from feelings of being trapped by my parking space. I get so much newly-developed anxiety from leaving my parking space around my own neighborhood because of the recent influx of college students and tech professionals. So much so, that I’ve refused to go out and have almost cried because I was more concerned with my mom losing her parking spot than picking me up at the BART station late at night. So I’m really trying to let go of those feelings.
- Abstain from the usuals: chocolate, chips, carbonated beverages, coffee. Clearly anything that begins with a C?
I have other personal, inner transformation goals, but I will not share them publicly.
Now you might be wondering, “Marjorie, couldn’t you do these at any time of year? Lent is technically an arbitrary set of dates.”
And you would be correct! I could just set up a “30 Day” Instagram challenge and be done with it. But Lent is an external deadline, and I know there are hundreds of millions of people across the world who are participating with their own struggles and challenges as well, regardless of their rationale being based in religion or something else. For me, Lent is a powerful time. I was born during Lent, so maybe that’s why this practice resonates with me so much.
So even though I don’t identify as religious, Lent is a practice that serves me as an individual, for personal growth, financial control, and self-restraint from unhealthy behaviors. You won’t be seeing me in a church on Easter morning, but I will certainly be celebrating my own accomplishments surrounded by people who support me.