Rhonda Mawhood Lee: Not giving up in Lent

Winter landscape

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If it's February, it's probably Lent. And that doesn't always mean giving up something, writes an Episcopal priest. Sometimes, dealing with the season's built-in emotional challenges is enough.

"What are you giving up for Lent?"

That's a common question in the couple of months before Easter. Even people who rarely attend church may renounce alcohol or sweets as a spiritual practice -- or a way to lose those few extra pounds left over from Christmas feasting.

Clergy probably hear this query more than most people. Our questioners may be curious about the disciplines of those who are perceived as "holy," or they may want our guidance about how best to prepare for Easter.

My truthful answer? Most years, I don't give up anything. Dealing with the season's built-in emotional challenges is usually enough for me. Being honest about that fact is one way I -- to use the traditional words -- "keep a holy Lent."

My trouble with Lent stems from a coincidence of timing. Normally, at least part of Lent falls in February. That's the month when my mother made a couple of suicide attempts during my childhood, and when she ultimately killed herself, 21 years ago, at the age of 52.

Today, I am a middle-aged woman blessed with my own family, a rich community and meaningful work. My life is filled with joy, and with challenges I never have to face alone. But my childhood experience of living with my mother's depression, which worsened in winter, and her recurrent desire to end her own life served to program February sadness into my body and soul. Mourning her death as a young adult confirmed the connection. Most years, I don't consciously think, "February is coming, and it's going to be hard." More often than not, I start feeling blue and only then think to look at the calendar. If it's February, there's a logical explanation for my sadness.

And if it's February, it's probably Lent, the season the church is called to observe, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, "by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word." All of those are good, time-honored practices designed for our edification. But for me -- and for others I know -- this challenging call comes at precisely the moment when I have the fewest resources to answer it.

I'm not alone. I have sat with dozens of faithful laypersons and clergy as they've tentatively confessed feeling guilty about the ways their depression -- seasonal or chronic -- or other struggles interfere with their desire to observe a traditional Lent. In the church's call to sacrifice, many of them hear an implicit assumption that the church is filled with strong people, that "the needy" with whom our Lenten disciplines are supposed to help us identify are located somewhere outside the church, not in the next pew. So I remind them that we are called to holiness, not heroism.

These friends are relieved when I tell them that self-examination, repentance, fasting and self-denial are challenging Lenten disciplines for me, too. That's not because I'm particularly sinful, self-indulgent or lazy, although I can be all those things simultaneously. It's because people who struggle with depression, and their children, can engage in self-examination in ways that are the opposite of what the church intends. Instead of looking honestly at ourselves and asking God to forgive and heal us, we may become trapped in self-loathing, unable to imagine a path toward holy growth. For too many, like my mother, depression is a fatal disease. The warped self-denial it engenders leads them, not to seek richer relationships with God and neighbors, but to reject life itself as they find its daily pain too much to bear.

Like any conscientious pastor, I ask people who talk to me about their struggles whether they're under the care of a therapist or doctor, where else they find the support they need, and whether they've thought of harming themselves. Once we have determined they're not in crisis, I suggest that engaging with Scripture and praying may be the most fruitful Lenten disciplines for them.

To me, the Lenten lectionary is comforting. The psalms both moan the devastating loneliness of feeling cut off from God and neighbor and sing a tenacious hope of reunion and healing. The Gospels focus on the Son of God voluntarily accompanying humankind through our toughest struggles into death and back to life -- a precious image for people affected by mental illness.

My year-round practice of praying the Book of Common Prayer's daily services is invaluable in this season, when my extemporaneous prayers are often limited to "Why?" and "Help!" I know those inarticulate prayers are acceptable to God, but I appreciate being able to turn to the Prayer Book's more poetic language, savored by generations of fellow pilgrims.

In Lent, as sad memories surface, I remember to give thanks for the gifts my mother gave me. When she was healthy, she delighted in the human life Jesus shared with us. She enjoyed good food and wine, and was a generous host. She loved animals and plants and was a devoted caregiver to both. She showed compassion to people who suffered, because she had experienced so much pain herself. Her experience of mental illness and her love of life taught me to appreciate the pleasures of this life without denying its pains.

So I keep a holy Lent by listening to Thomas Tallis' "Lamentations of Jeremiah" and John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." I savor wine and chocolate in moderation. Most importantly, I tend the human relationships the church's Lenten disciplines are meant to support. I give alms, especially to those who suffer in winter's cold. I make myself available for conversation with people who may be struggling with seasonal affective disorder or chronic depression. And from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, I mail a handwritten note each day to someone who may need a word of encouragement or appreciation.

Even with its challenges, I have come to see Lent as a gift: a season when the church places the hardships and trials of this life at the forefront of our attention, acknowledging their cost yet proclaiming that none of them can keep Easter from coming. For those who feel stuck in the wilderness, waiting in hope for the resurrection may mean gathering together for beer and pizza, or coffee and cake. And that is holy.