A decade ago, Megan Collings-Moore, archdeacon of Waterloo in the diocese of Huron, was having a hard time. Personal and vocational problems had been besetting her, she says, for the previous few years. As Lent approached one year, she began to talk with her spiritual director about a discipline that would be, she says, “life-giving, and not just ‘one more obligation,’ ” and got an idea. She counted out 40 rocks and put them in a vase, which she kept beside the chair she sat in for morning prayer.
“Every morning, I would think about what I was carrying most that day in terms of resentments/hurts/anger, and I chose a rock and held it in my hand while I allowed myself to feel the emotion connected to that hurt—and then I put it in my pocket or my purse as I got ready for my day,” Collings-Moore says. She would carry each rock around with her for a bit, then let go of it at some point during the day.
“I left a trail of rocks all over that Lent—parking lots, driveways, edges of parks or gardens, beside pathways,” she recalls. “It was a very tangible way of trying to let go of all the stuff I was carrying. Many days, I was praying hard for God to help me let it go. Sometimes, I was well aware that I wasn’t completely over it yet, but it helped me realize that my history, and other people’s action or inaction, didn’t have to consume me all the time.”
By the time Holy Week came, she felt aware of having let go of a lot of what had been troubling her—and aware of the possibility of life to be better and more filled with love than might ever be imagined.
“By Easter, I was ready to believe there could be new life,” she says.
In mid-January, as the Anglican Journal staff was preparing its March issue, it asked its Facebook followers about meaningful disciplines they had developed for Lent—things they had given up, things they had taken on. A similar question was posted on the Anglican Church of Canada’s Facebook page. We were privileged to hear about a wide variety of practices, apparently arising out of particular needs and circumstances, but all suggesting the idea of spiritual discipline for the sake of new life.
A few years ago, Ms. Louise Simos, a part-time divinity student who worships at the church of All Saints (Sherbourne Street), Toronto, decided to try to give up indifference, in what she describes as a small way. For every day of Lent, she gave a marginalized person on the street a loonie, and spoke with him or her. Sometimes she was blessed and prayed for in response; sometimes she was told a joke or story.
Not all the interactions were pleasant. Sometimes she was ignored; one person cursed her; another chased her and asked for more money. Nevertheless, Simos says, each encounter changed her day in some way, causing her to reflect on those she met and what they must face as they tried to go about their lives.
“When you actually touch someone who’s suffering, it’s like you’re touching Christ suffering on the cross,” she says. “I think that that was what it was…it was about seeing them and feeling that we were all part of the same humanity, because so often we walk by and we try not even to look, because it’s awkward.”
As of press time, more than 30 people had submitted comments about their Lenten practices on the two Facebook pages. Among the practices most often cited was abstaining from complaining. Four people said this practice had been especially meaningful to them; one of these said she always gives up complaining at Lent. “It reminds me to be more careful of all my words—complaining or otherwise,” she commented. Another wrote that giving up complaining had helped him “clarify and actually be more confident in raising concerns when appropriate.”
Two wrote of abstaining from swearing, and of making an extra donation to the church or the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund when they did swear. Many also gave up various kinds of food: chocolate, sugar, added salt, popcorn; and other consumables: wine, cigarettes. The Rev. John Deepak Sundara—who was ordained in British Columbia but now serves as a priest for The Episcopal Church’s diocese of Dallas—once gave up eating meat for Lent, and still eats as little meat as possible during the season. Sundara says he made the decision because he was concerned by the environmental and other damage he believes high meat consumption poses. He also feels consumerism can keep us from hearing the voice of God, and occasionally fasts as a way of trying to experience the presence of Christ more closely.
Ms. Dawn Upham, a retired military reservist who serves as a lay reader at St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Summerside, P.E.I., says she took up walking to work—in the cold of northern Alberta—to reflect on how she felt, praying and thinking of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. (She also abstained from eating meat during that Lent.) The cold, she said, was distracting, but following the advice of her chaplain, she offered up that feeling of distractedness in prayer to God.
“The time I spent was rewarded by a deep and meaningful experience of what it meant to be in regular prayer,” Upham says. “It also made me realize that though my sins were great, I was a beloved child of God…I always look back on this particular Lent as a special time in which I learned to have a relationship with God.”
Five respondents said they had devoted themselves to extra Bible study and other forms of spiritual reading. Three took on extra volunteer work. Two gave up Facebook, and another stopped looking at her cellphone during lunchtime at work. One made a point of replacing guilt with intentional thanksgiving. One gave up buying new things; another abstained from using credit cards.
At least one Canadian has drawn international headlines for his Lenten practice. In 2014, Chris Schryer, who worships at the Church of St. Aidan in the Beach, Toronto, gave up solid food and consumed only doppelbock—a rich beer originally brewed by German monks—blessed by his priest, for Lent. Schryer says that at the time it seemed a good way of combining two important aspects of his life—craft beer (about which he has written widely) and spiritual discipline. He says he found the fast a meaningful exercise in “beneficial discomfort,” but adds that its perception by many as a joke or attention-getting stunt, and the media attention it provoked, made it difficult at times to attend to his spiritual growth. This year, Schryer says, he plans to observe Lent by leading an evensong series at St. Aidan’s.
Lenten discipline is not only for individuals; some parishes practise it as a community as well. In 2018, 11 Anglican churches in Canada, for example, took part in “Give it up for the Earth!”, a campaign that encourages participants to take measures reducing their contribution to climate change, and to call for changes to government policy, according to Kari Munn-Venn, senior policy analyst at Citizens for Public Justice, the Christian social justice group behind the initiative.
Lent, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, arises from a tradition, practised in the very early church, of fasting for two or three days before Easter. The period of fasting was eventually extended to 40 days in commemoration of the fasting of Jesus in the desert. In recent times, abstaining from things other than food, and taking up other kinds of spiritual exercises, have taken the place of fasting.