During this time of year many Christians observe a period of time called Lent, when they engage in fasting, almsgiving and prayer to prepare themselves for the great feast of Easter coming in a few weeks. While it’s easy to see Lent as a gloomy time of self-denial, it actually can be a time for joy and discovery that brings healing for people and the environment. As with many things it all depends on our understanding of what we are trying to do.
Relationships and Happiness
God is the world’s best psychologist. For decades scientists have been studying the factors that contribute to human well-being and happiness. A large body of evidence shows that the quality of one’s relationships contributes greatly to one’s sense of happiness and health. For instance, one controlled study showed that for people experiencing stressful events those who don’t help others during this time face a greater risk of death in the next five years compared to those who do. The researchers concluded that “social connections may be beneficial to the extent that they provide individuals with the opportunity to benefit others.”*
Many studies in the growing field of ecopsychology similarly point to the emotional and physical benefits of spending time in nature. Patients heal faster if they are exposed to a window where they can see trees. People exercising outdoors as opposed to indoors experience greater physical and mental benefits from their efforts. Time spent outdoors reduces stress and enhances one’s ability to think clearly. Once again, getting in touch with those around us, whether human or nonhuman, brings a myriad of benefits. Relationships matter.*
Spirituality and the Art of Relating
Christians understand God to be “perfect relating.” They understand God to be a community of three persons who give themselves to each other with total abandon, to the point that they act like one entity. They perfectly exemplify the old adage that the whole exceeds the sum of its parts.
Because God loves relating, God creates others (us and everything else) that it can relate to. In fact, at every moment it keeps all things existing and relating to each other. That’s why we have natural and social systems. Getting to know God then, as the finite creatures we are, in great part involves learning how to relate to one another, both human and nonhuman, as God does. As we come to relate more and more perfectly, we get in sync with God and become more like God-like. Spiritual growth, then, means growing in the quality of our relationships. And, as we do that, our physical, mental and emotional well-being increases. Spiritual well-being and bodily well-being walk hand-in-hand.
The Joy of Lent
So, what about Lent and its practices? Why do they bring joy? They do so by healing our relationships, thereby bringing us into a place of deep meaning and fulfillment over time. The fasting and almsgiving we associate with giving up things we value actually help us learn what really is of value. When we give ourselves to others (give alms), whether by offering rides to those lacking transportation, providing a listening ear to a scared or lonely person, or feeding someone who is out of luck, we grow in our ability to care for others. We heal ourselves as we help others. When we fast from controlling every minute of our day by making time to talk to someone we meet, choose to limit our food intake at dinner so that we can empathize a bit with the hungry, or refrain from villifying those with whom we strongly disagree, we open ourselves to others. When we pray by voicing our concerns for ourselves and others, taking time to listen in silence to God’s often mysterious response, we recognize our dependence on God and deepen our relationship with God. And when we take time to meditate (contemplate) nature, we engage in a form of prayer the monks believed was crucial to our relationship with God.
The practices of Lent enable us to connect in new and deeper ways to the world around us and, thereby, to God. We come to discover who we really are as opposed to who we thought we were. The world around us starts to reveal God’s presence wherever we go. We come to appreciate the things that truly matter as opposed to those that don’t. We rejoice when we open thoughtful gifts from a loving friend because they reveal the depth of our friend’s love. The practices of Lent represent the opportunity to let God show us and open up the gifts hidden deep in our being. No wonder, then, that Lent can be a time of joy.
*University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter, Special Spring Issue 2016, pp. 1, 2, and 7.