Giving up and taking hold

ash crossIf my life and his death had gone differently, I would find my friend Ray in his office today, his forehead smudged with an ashen cross.

Ray, who died in December, was a devout Catholic, and like millions of Christians observed Lent, which commences today.  For believers, an ash-daubed forehead is not just a profession of faith, but a somber symbol of penitence and prayer leading up to the Easter celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

crystalsI am not Christian, but I find something deeply appealing in Ash Wednesday, and in the larger observance of Lent. I grew up with atheist parents, and always envied such rituals. As non-religions go, atheism is ceremonially impoverished, lacking even the crystals, drumming circles, and channeled entities of New Ageism. I admire the intellectual rigor of non-belief, but it doesn’t leave you with a lot to do.

Doing matters, especially doing with a well-defined  intention and strong sense of purpose. Dabbling is ultimately disheartening, especially in spiritual matters, and rituals like Ash Wednesday help Christians knuckle down and get serious, if only for the six weeks of Lent.

But there’s something here for non-Christians, too: a distinct invitation to both give up and take hold.

As a Buddhist, I can join in the practice of abstaining —  not from a culturally defined vice, but from an habitual deterrent to mindfulness. We all have them:  Maybe it’s sugar or booze or an addictive relationship, but it could just as easily be a milder, culturally sanctioned form of checking out: spending hours online, or in front of the TV.

buddha cropDuring Lent, I might embrace prayer not in the conventional Christian sense, but as meditation. I might commit to taking at least a few minutes each day to be fully present with my thoughts and feelings, accepting that the still small voice of God is more often than not going to be drowned out by the raucous ruminations of lesser spirits. Nonetheless: Sit.

I won’t wear an ashen cross on my forehead today, and no one will know whether I keep the Lenten promises I make to myself. The work of the spirit is ultimately a private matter, a quiet commitment that is largely invisible to others.

But public observances like Ash Wednesday give all of us – Christian or not – a reminder that such work matters. Not because we are bad and need to do penance, but because we want to give the light in us every chance to outshine the darkness. We help ourselves — and ultimately, each other — by renouncing that which diminishes what is holy in us and embracing that which brings it forth.

Lent reminds us, too, that we haven’t got forever to do this work.  Ash Wednesday supplicants traditionally receive this blessing: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron teaches that impermanence is a perpetual reminder to wake up, an incentive to “practice as if your hair were on fire.”

Lent is a chance to take that advice to heart:  We can start again. Today.

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