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40 Days Lent Secular Practice

40 Days: Lent, A Secular Practice

How To Practice A Secular Form of Lent for Transformation

These days, a profound grief lives in my lungs. It doesn’t take much to send hot tears rolling down my cheeks. A sunset, a kind word, and lately the verse “fall on your knees” from the hymn “Oh, Holy Night“. I could blame it on all that’s happened to all of us in the last two years – a blight on our hearts that blots out hope.

My body tells me it’s different though. This grief feels the same as the moment just before I birthed a child. It’s the shattering of a heart that realizes something divine is about to be born. And ready or not, life will be forever changed.

Standing at this precipice, how do we ready ourselves for the awesome responsibility of birthing a new world for ourselves and each other? To that I answer – Lent couldn’t come soon enough.

For Christians, Lent is a solemn holiday commemorating the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert before he began his public ministry. In the desert, Jesus is continuously tempted from his path. In my interpretation, he is engaged with his instincts and shadow.

Like Jesus, as we stand at the edge of a new world (a new us). Lent is a time where we wrestle with the questions of birthing. We ask, ‘how do I prepare’? And, ‘how do I bring my instincts and shadow into the fold with my higher self?’

As with any successful birth, we must make changes in our lives for the new to come through us. Knowing that birthing is an allowing, we begin to remove all that doesn’t support the birth. When Lent is practiced in the Christian tradition, many adherents choose to remove something they really enjoy from their lives like chocolate or wine for forty days.

In that way, it’s like playing chicken with The Devil card in the tarot. The Devil reminds us of all that keeps us chained to our former life; what keeps us from growing. Yet, when we look closely at the card as it’s illustrated in the Smith-Raider-Waite deck we realize that the chains are loose and we can escape at any time. Sometimes, all it takes is us making a choice. We have the power to look the devil square in the eye and say “I’m done with this”.

This face-off with the devil can only come about after we’ve tangoed for a bit with our instincts and shadow. When we look at all the things we wish really weren’t a part of ourselves, so much so that we pretend they don’t exist. That’s when we can decide what stays and what goes.

A Secular Lent

In order to birth the new, we must shake off our shackles and commit to letting go of all the things we know will not serve our next incarnation. What we choose to release cannot be something petty like chicken nuggets. What we choose is going to be something that pushes us further into grief before we arrive at acceptance. For some, it may be sex. For others, social media. Some may realize that the glass of wine at the end of the day is a much bigger deal than they led themselves to believe.

Even though I haven’t been a regular drinker for almost a decade, I asked myself the question – what if I just didn’t drink wine, even once a month? What would I learn if I pretended it didn’t exist? I learned after a month of full sobriety that I often thought about pouring a glass when I was angry. Turns out, anger is not an emotion I can easily accept in myself. That realization is something I can work with. It’s a part of me that hides in the shadows that I can now bring into the light.

During the official Lenten season, I’m considering pausing all new work projects and staying off social media. I’ve realized my work has taken on a feeling of desperation. Constantly needing to produce has left me no longer sure of what wants to come through. In other words, my faith is suffering and the only way I know how to get it back is to fall on my knees.

Single-Minded Focus on Any One Thing

Sacrifice alone through some superstitious belief that if we give enough we’ll be blessed is a fallacy. It is a trick of the mind that keeps us from the real work; a distraction at best. Sometimes what we need is a commitment to one thing for a given about of time (say, forty days) to see if it “works”. In fact, I believe in single-minded focus so much that I have this Yoga Sutras of Patanjali tattooed in Sanskrit across my ribs. My rough translation is “single-minded focus on any one thing will bring you to God/Love/Peace”.  Alas, sweat and ink makes it no easier for me to commit.

Why is it so difficult for us humans to make a commitment? We could blame the endless Netflix options or the 87,000 Starbucks combinations, but I think it’s something more primal. Every human learns that at the moment we make a choice for one thing, we are saying no to every other possibility. Irrationally, we also fear that every choice is forever even though we know in our bones that nothing last forever. Even death and taxes are up for debate.

Forty days of commitment to either refraining from an activity, practicing another, or both allows us to bypass the fear of forever and enter into an experiment with the deeper parts of ourselves. A forty-day practice is not unique to Christianity. There is also the practice of the forty-day Sadhana in Hindu and Buddhist Tantrism where practitioners repeat the same mantra over forty days in an effort to invoke the divine.

Now We Begin

A commitment is a choice. It is the moment we draw a line in the sand. What do you choose? What can you strip away or include that will support this rebirth? Then, make a promise to yourself that no matter what trickery your mind plays to sway you from your path, you will stay.

During the forty days, we will walk through the deep, dark, woods and wrestle with our shadow knowing that dawn comes, as promised.

Write your commitment in the comments.



  • Linda Dooling

    March 6, 2022at1:05 pm Reply

    As a loosely mystical Catholic and the mother of two decidedly secular girls, my daughters’ continuing fascination with Ash Wednesday and Lent has compelled my attention. We need, as you write, to wrestle with our shadows.

    • Kristen

      March 7, 2022at6:30 pm Reply

      It’s so interesting how they are drawn to those practices in particular. And, yes, shadow work is a deeply transformative practices for each of us, and for society as a whole. Thanks for writing me!

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