Wednesday, February 22, 2023

The Hungry Month

     Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. What are you giving up for Lent? Maybe that's the wrong question. Why are you giving up anything for Lent? What's it all about? 

    This might be a somewhat unconventional answer, but it's the one that occurred to me this morning as I was, once again, zoning out on a homily delivered in a language I don't yet understand very well. What will happen when I get more fluent in French? Gee, I might have to deliberately take time to meditate on the Scriptures ... would that be a terrible thing? Probably not. Meanwhile.... 

    What I was thinking about was how back in the old days, before supermarkets, refrigeration, or pressure canning, there wasn't really very much choice about whether or not to fast toward the end of winter.

    Livestock gets thin on dry winter pasture, and wild predators compete for the thin wild game. Hens don't lay in winter. Fruit is a few last shrivelled apples, or it's wine or hard cider. All the dry foods harvested in the previous summer and autumn start to run low, and always risk being spoiled or invaded by pests. 

    This is the hungry month. I remember reading that name for February years ago, in some compilation of Native American literature. It stuck with me always, so evocative, even though I myself have never been dependent on the seasons, never lacked supermarkets, refrigerator and freezer, canned goods, and the rest of it. 

    It hasn't been that many generations since my own ancestors used to live closer to the land, and feel the pinch at the end of winter. There are still millions or billions of people in the world who sometimes go hungry between one harvest and the next. And of course, the tradition of Lent, a season of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, is ancient. And my thought is that it's one of those traditions that weren't invented by the Church, but merely re-framed, given a new layer of meaning, sacralized.

    The hungry month is a time to take responsibility for stewarding what is left. It's a time to take care of your future self, by cutting back so what you have will last until more comes in. It's about resisting the temptation to butcher the milk cow or the hens, since that would mean also sacrificing not only milk and eggs, but also the next generation of livestock. It's about saving enough grain to seed next year's crop, even if that means that today I eat watery gruel.

    It's also a time for solidarity. If a fox gets all my neighbor's poultry, or rats get their grain, I'm going to share; I might need help myself next time. If I get sick and can't chop wood or haul water, my neighbor's going to help me out; they might be the one in trouble next time. 

    And it's a time for prayer, because whatever precautions we take, we cannot control how soon the thaw comes, or the rains. I or my neighbor can always be overtaken by disease, injury, fire, so many unforeseeable circumstances. We need to pray for the strength to do what is right, to be responsible and to share. We need to pray for hope and consolation through the long, cold, depressing end of winter.

    So how do I want to think about observing Lent, myself, in the era of the supermarket? How can I, in my own context, my own time and place, re-frame and re-sacralize this tradition? And this is what occurred to me this morning. 

    What do I have to steward, if not the last of last year's harvest? Well, my bank account, for one thing. Am I burdening my future self with debt? Am I failing to save up for things that would really make my life better, and instead frittering it away on little things? 

    And am I mindful of other people's poverty? Am I happy with how much of my income goes to help people in greater need? Are my savings invested in socially and environmentally responsible funds, or am I passively supporting things that beat people down somewhere on the other side of the globe? Do I buy the cheapest products, or do I support fair trade, organic, or similar standards?

    And my health: this body has to last me until I die ... am I taking good care of it? Am I mindful of my diet, exercise, sleep? Do I think about how my posture today will affect my back pain in 10, 20, 30 or more years? And how often do I think about people who might already be weaker, old or sick or shut-in? Do I ever actually visit? Do I offer to help? Do I ask for or accept help when I need it?

    We have this one planet to steward, one global ecosystem. Every one of us has daily choices to make about what we are doing to heal it or further destroy it. What's the thermostat set at, was my food factory-farmed, am I wearing "fast fashion," how else can I reduce, reuse, or recycle? Are there neighborhood, or regional, national or international initiatives I can join with, to magnify the impact of my efforts?

    You could probably add more, but I'll end with this one: my energy, my attention, my time, my peace of mind. Do I decide mindfully how to spend my time, how to maintain my space, what media and social media to take in, the balance between work and play, stimulation and quiet, solitude and social interaction? 

    Do you read this blog post and feel weighed down with all the things you could or should be more responsible about in your own life? I kind of do, honestly. That's why I'm ending with energy. It is limited, and it has to be stewarded. I'm not going to go from bumbling along, muddling through my life, straight to checking off all the boxes on all the things I should or could be doing better. 

    I'm going to steward my energy by going through this kind of exercise and deciding on one or two changes I could focus on now. One way to choose is to brainstorm until I run out of ideas, and then read back through and see if something stands out. 

    Another is to think about whether one change would make other changes more possible. For instance, getting my finances in order might open up all kinds of options; signing up as a volunteer somewhere might give me the accountability I need to give "alms" with my time and attention; or starting with simply establishing a regular bedtime might leave me with enough energy and mental clarity to enable me to tackle other challenges.

    So, what am I giving up for Lent? I'm giving up a little of my obliviousness, some of my mindlessness, some of the buffering and spinning out I indulge in most days. In concrete terms, I'm re-committing to praying the Office more consistently, including more of the "Little Hours" of Terce, Sext, and None, as and when I can. I'm committing to a bit more spiritual reading, some of it in French (a set of readings at Lauds, and reading through a book a little at a time at Vespers). More silent meditation, at least one period per day. I'm also committing to taking some more specific steps to support my ADHD, with the guidance of my coach. 

    These are the inward things I need to do in order to steward my energy, focus, balance. I need that, to be able to continue to take steps each day toward my outward priority goal of finding a place to live in my new country. This is my Lenten challenge for 2023. What about you?

+++ PEACE +++

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