Today marks the beginning of the Lenten season in the Christian faith. A common tradition for this time of fasting is to give up one (or many) of your vices as a reminder of your humility and devotion to God.
Fact: I was born and raised Catholic. I was baptized in the Catholic faith, I received First Holy Communion and was EVEN confirmed in the Catholic church. I have given up everything from chocolate and candy bars to Facebook for Lent, and yet somehow I know next to nothing about the significance behind this important Catholic tradition. What I was doing during my 16 years of Sunday School is beyond me… I was mildly interested, and that’s a generous statement. But in the latter part of my life, I can say in all honesty that I have have struggled to claim this part of my identity that I was brought up with.
So today, as the priest on our campus offered the traditional blessing, the marking of palm ashes in the shape of a small cross on one’s forehead, I hesitated. I felt a mix of Catholic guilt and my new agey beliefs overwhelming my decision making processes. Was it possible to reconcile my Catholic identity with my spirituality? Part of me feels that I can have a relationship with God without having to smear a big black cross on my forehead as a symbol of my devotion. Yet another part of me felt particularly uncomfortable not receiving the ashes.
I waited until the very last minute and dashed forward to say that I would like to have mine. All the while I was making excuses to myself and those around me as to why I hadn’t come forth earlier. The priest marked my forehead and I mumbled an unconvincing “Amen,” not sure if I was supposed to even say that or not. And then I stood there in the middle of the school cafeteria with my big-black-smudged up forehead, feeling a mix of humility and shame. I felt humbled by my ego and ashamed that I had no clue as to why receiving ashes was even a tradition.
So, like any unknowing fool, I promptly wikipedia’d the significance of the Ash Wednesday.
My search quickly unveiled most of the uncertainties I had about the significance of Ash Wednesday and left me with this tidbit that my new age spirituality could really vibe with:
Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.
It struck me in a very non-denominational way, and cut straight to the point.
To me this read: you, human being, are made of the universe — hydrogen, helium and other trace elements. You were created in this form to live a human experience, and when you die, your body will return to where it came from.
I found this elegantly simple and in line with the natural cycles we experience all the time. It is as if to say that the daily rising and setting of the sun or the 28 day moon cycle or the turning of the seasons is as much an innate part of our experience as our life cycle–ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
As I began to reflect on the cyclical nature of life, I found myself contemplating the renewal of a cycle I began last year during Lent. Last year I made a commitment to my writing and to an attitude of gratitude, and I wrote for 40 days, each day outlining what I was most grateful for during that day. It was one of the most rewarding challenges I ever set for myself, and it genuinely changed the way I perceived my daily level of happiness. Not every day was perfect, but I was so focused on what I was going to be grateful for that day, that I learned how to transform my hardships into lessons, my lessons into gratitude, and my gratitude into happiness. Things such as loneliness and heartbreak became positives, and I learned of my capacity to turn the smallest moments of my day into powerfully meaningful blessings.
There have been scientific studies demonstrating the power that gratitude can have on a person’s happiness, and I truly believe that it is not happy people who are thankful, but thankful people who are happy.
And so, I recommit myself to this cycle. Another Lenten season, another 40 days of gratitude.
Today I am grateful for my kickboxing class. Not only do I leave feeling the benefits of a good workout, but I am also able to interact on a social level with members of my community. It is a time of day where I can focus all of my attention into the present moment, to dance around a punching bag, to inhale and exhale, and to focus on my form. I get to be serious and to laugh at the same time and to allow all of my external worries melt away.
I am grateful for this channel of expression that allows me to tune into the present moment. Instead of being an escape, it is an hour and a half of complete awareness. Thus, I would like to offer up my gratitude today to the confidence, power and energy that I receive from this class, and to the people with whom I share those sacred 90 minutes.