My Bookish Lent

The (mostly) book-related things I’m doing for Lent aren’t “religious” things, exactly, so this post won’t be preachy, I hope. It would be pretty rich if it were, since I’m a . . . well, not even half . . . maybe a quarter-assed Christian. I sometimes describe church-going as a habit I’ve failed to break. At this point in my life I’ve stopped worrying about believing. I don’t know what I believe and I don’t think it matters much. Because I find some meaning and purpose in the community, the language, and the rituals of Christianity, I keep at it, in my quarter-assed kind of way. Maybe only an eighth of an ass. Here’s how I see what I’m doing fitting into the Lenten disciplines of self-examination, fasting and prayer.

Video Series on Time + Morning Pages [Self-Examination]

As I did last year, I have subscribed to the Lenten video series from the monks at the Society of St. John the Evangelist (actually, I didn’t have to resubscribe; those monks are crafty. I’ve been getting a daily short meditation by email all year). This year’s theme is time. Here’s a bit from the introductory video, which points out that the first thing God calls holy in the Bible is time, the seventh day of creation:

For many of us, time is experienced no longer as a precious gift, but almost like an enemy. We haven’t got enough time. “I can never get everything done that I want to do. Oh, if only I could have more time.” Or on the other hand we waste time and we fritter it away and kill time. All of these things I think – which bear witness to a sense of disorderedness, a disordered relationship with this precious gift.

I’ve been doing some secular things in the past year or so to try to bring order to my relationship with time, and I’m looking forward to some more spiritual consideration of this as well. 

Since January I’ve been doing Morning Pages (sort of) and during Lent I’m starting my day by watching the video and then writing at least partly in response to it. Doing this last year re-started a journaling habit I had pretty much abandoned in my children’s early years, and I have found it helpful. (I’ve also requested Julia Cameron’s book from the library).

Book-Buying Ban [Fasting]

I did this last year; since books are probably the thing I’m most likely to mindlessly acquire, it’s a good kind of “fast” for me. Given our culture’s attitudes to women and food, fasts involving food feel too much like “a diet” to me. I wanted something that I could more easily frame as a spiritual discipline.

I think of this not so much as giving something up but as focusing on how much I have and being grateful for it. (It’s not like I’m going to run out of reading material in 40 days.) Anxiety about having “enough” in life–enough money, time, love, support, wisdom, whatever–is something I’ve been working on for a long time. I was inspired to focus on it more by reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which brought home to me not just how much closer I am to the top of the wealth and income hierarchy than to the bottom, but how much I have benefited from tax policies that are dramatically increasing and perpetuating inequalities of wealth. I’m not super rich, but I am most certainly not poor, and yet my feelings about money are almost always scarcity and anxiety, which means I don’t use my money as wisely or generously as I’d like to. Not buying books is one small way I am trying to reframe my thinking about what resources I have.

This one is not working out perfectly. I decided not to use the library either, so I could focus on what have. But I made an exception for library holds, and of course 6 came in last week–the better part of 40 days’ reading right there. I might return some unread. And I’m also grateful for the abundance provided by my library.

“Spiritual” Reading [Prayer]

The videos and morning pages are really a kind of prayer too, but every year I try to read something, slowly, that I can meditate on. This year, it’s Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, which my dad gave me for Christmas. As Wiman explains in the preface, the book grew in part out of the responses he received to his essay “Love Bade Me Welcome.” He talks about how that essay gave him his first real experience of dialogue and connection with an audience (he’s a poet).

I wanted to write a book that might help someone who is at once as confused and certain about the source of life and consciousness as I am.

Well, I’ve got the confused part down. And I could use some help.

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23 Responses to My Bookish Lent

  1. KeiraSoleore says:

    Liz, I sing in the choir at my church. But my relationship to the Church is complicated and variable. I keep at it, despite the messages that I don’t always agree with. I enjoy the camaraderie, the music, and I’m always thankful for the experience.

    Yay, on the Julia Cameron book. I found it really helpful with my Morning Pages.
    I need to think about time more. I enjoyed that quote you have above.
    Thank you for your “what I have is enough” discussion of a few days ago. I discussed it with my MPages and will continue to periodically discuss is there, because it’s a critical thing for me right now and I need some resolution, some determination, some closure.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      My church choir is way above my skill level, but singing is one thing that keeps me going to church. There aren’t many places where–as a not-really-skilled adult–you can sing with a large group of people, and I love it. Maybe because I am largely a word person, I find music a much more openly emotional experience. I am prone to embarrassing tears when singing a hymn I’ve known and loved since childhood.

      I have found that “what I have is enough” so helpful over the years (and not just about money–love, time, patience, fortitude). When I had newborn babies, I had to remind myself a LOT that I had enough resources to be their mother. I still do, actually. It’s not true for everyone, of course, and I think for all of us it’s not true, or not helpful, all of the time (I wouldn’t tell a newly bereaved person that they had enough to get through this, and who would tell a homeless person they had “enough”? I find it way too pat and easy to say that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, and I don’t think the priest who taught us this meant it that way either). But it’s been true and helpful for me at many moments when I’ve though “I can’t do this.” I’m glad it’s helped you!

      • KeiraSoleore says:

        I’m with you there with the emotions being very close to the surface with music, especially religious music. Even when I was not a practicing person, I found that I was drawn to the masses and other religious music. Through my church choir, I’m now introduced to the more regular English worship songs, and I’ve realized that: Words have power. I mean, as a writer and reader I knew this, right? But it was brought home to me even more through music.

  2. Miss Bates says:

    I find it so interesting, as a self-identified but uncertain Christian, how, no matter the denomination, that I have more in common with others in Christian communities than not. The singing, the attempt to be more contemplative and considered, more cognizant of worldliness, and to engage in some kind of retreat during the Lenten season, is something I share. I think I would add, at least in the liturgical experience of the Orthodox church, that one of the things I most love about being a part of regular services is the ritual that requires the body: the bowing, kneeling, touching the earth, holding up of hands during prayer, the kiss of peace. I read a meditation by Kallistos Ware today where he talked about the importance of worshipping with the body as well as mind and spirit. I guess the singing in particular provides that. I wish you a renewing Lenten season.

    • Ros says:

      “…one of the things I most love about being a part of regular services is the ritual that requires the body”

      When I was going through a time of real spiritual crisis and clinical depression some years ago, I found most comfort in receiving communion precisely because it was a physical, tangible, edible expression of God’s ongoing care and my dependence on him. I couldn’t pray or articulate anything much in words at the time because it all just made me cry. But I could eat and drink and there was great solace in it. Other than that, my church tradition doesn’t have much of a physical, bodily ritual and I think that is a shame.

      • Miss Bates says:

        I’m sorry to hear that you want through a trial, but glad that God’s solace was still available to you, something you could still experience and gain from. I have to say that ritual is a great comfort to me, who am so cerebral and full of words. The silence, the smells, and the movements take me out of myself and it is spiritually renewing … and yet, still contemplative. I’m sorry too that your church, which does so much good in the world and stands for all people, and has especially given women a place and a voice, seems lacking in this.

  3. Ros says:

    I love those comments on time. I think that’s something which all of us would probably benefit from meditating on and thinking about more consciously than we do.

    I am doing Lent Bible readings and morning pages in response to those. It’s also a busy season for me because I teach a weekly Lent course at church. One other thing I enjoy about Lent is our weekly Lent lunches – simple bread and soup meals, but a wonderful, relaxed time shared with people who don’t often have the opportunity to sit down and eat together.

  4. Liz Mc2 says:

    I am enjoying this discussion very much. For many years I didn’t feel I could talk about questions of faith with most people–certainly not outside of my church community. As I’ve gotten older that has started to change, and I have really enjoyed finding people among my online reading friends with whom I can be open about these things. You all mean a lot to me.

    I spent time in my teens in high church parishes, and although I think their attachment to ritual was sometimes problematic (about the “right” form and being superior, not about meaning) I miss the physicality of them: kneeling, genuflecting, crossing oneself (at all the “right” times). In my current church we don’t do most of those things.

    This is a story from today that seems a propos: As I was leaving church, the man behind me was whistling the final hymn. I made some offhand remark about how the familiar classics stick in your head for the rest of the day. He told me that he always heard his grandmother singing them, and that he had been hearing them for 60 years in our church, where his parents and grandparents were also members. “Whenever I touch something old in the church, like the old pews,” he said, “I wonder if they touched it before me.” Then he told me about how his grandfather got shrapnel in his leg in WWI, and his chaplain, who was then the rector of our church (and whose own son was killed in the war), persuaded him to move to Vancouver from small-town Ontario. His grandfather and father (who was shot down in WWII) both came home from their respective world wars to be married in our church. (This might be normal in a small town, but not so much in a big city downtown church). All that from a hymn, and in the block we walked to our cars. I thanked him for sharing the story with me.

    • Ros says:

      That’s a lovely story. The church that I go to now is the one where my grandmother went in the last 30 years of her life. I do love the sense of connection to her that comes from being in that place and that community.

  5. Clarissa says:

    Quarter-assed Christian here too! I’ve just discovered your blog and absolutely love this post and the discussion that follows! There’s so much I can identify with here, from the discussion of physicality in worship (what a thrill it was for me to discover kneelers when I first started going to an Anglican church) to seemingly illogical worries about anxiety and scarcity (I heard somewhere that every woman believes she’s one paycheque away from being a bag lady!).

  6. kaetrin says:

    Wow Liz, if you’re a quarter-ass Christian I’m probably barely a 16th! We don’t go to church anymore at all. I used to love the music – I even sang for a while. But the focus always seemed to be on doing doing doing and if you weren’t at every single thing and volunteering out the wazoo, it was like you were invisible. When we really needed support it didn’t eventuate and we were gone three months before anyone bothered to even contact us. It’s kind of embarrassing to think a place we were at for years did not even notice/care that we weren’t there anymore.

    If my relationship with God was a Facebook status it would probably say “it’s complicated”. I still classify myself as a believer and we pray with the child every night. He goes to a Christian school so he gets some education (parts of which we have to correct when he comes home – but it’s a trade off – the public schools have a higher % of drugs in them and the classes are much larger) but that’s about it really.

    I find much more spritual support from my online friends and it’s a thing I’m very grateful for.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Religious institutions often do a terrible job of embodying faith and community. I’m sorry you had that experience.

      The first week of the video series I am doing had “Stop” as the theme, and was about the importance of being rather than (or in addition to) doing. That is a really hard one for me, but it’s important.

      • kaetrin says:

        Thx Liz. I think any place where people with a common interest meet up can become cliquey and the church is just one place it can happen.

        When my son started middle school this year there was a parent/teacher/student info night where the coordinator was talking about the concept of “open circles” and encouraging the students to “leave room” for new people to join their circles and to be welcome (especially because year 7 is a time when they have a large intake of new students) and even though it sounded kind of wanky, I thought it was a good idea and a good thing for me to remember in everything. I feel like a regular member of Romancelandia now rather than a newbie and I’d like to think that my contribution to it is generally welcoming and open – that’s what I found for myself and it’s something that means a lot to me to have received.

  7. Sunita says:

    I’m very late to comment, but I just wanted to say I love your Lenten posts. I remember the one from last year well. I’ve always thought of Lent as a time of sacrifice, but you (and Keira and Ros) have shown me the discipline and reflection part, and that is something we all can draw on.

    Related: After months of resisting, I can no longer hold out. I now have the Piketty queued up in my audiobook TBR. 25 hours. I am so very slow at audiobooks. Bad, bad Liz. 😉

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Better late than never! Thank you. I love writing these posts but I also wonder as I do “Who could possibly be interested in this?” So it’s nice when people are.

      I feel that Piketty is a poor return for all the great books and authors you recommended to me. I found the first section a bit of a slog (I downloaded a PDF of the graphs and charts and I needed them to anchor the abstractions at first). But once I got past that it is fairly narrative and I was hooked. (A lot still got past me, but that would have been as true reading as listening). It might be more familiar to you as a social scientist. One odd thing was that I found the narrator’s voice very American–not that I wanted a faux French accent or something but it was kind of folksy. It took some getting used to because of the disjunction with what I felt was a very French viewpoint and academic style.

      • Sunita says:

        Let’s hope it’s more familiar to me! I’ve done some political economic research on taxing/spending issues at the national and subnational levels in India, and I’ve read and taught on income transfers, etc., so I’m hoping that will provide a sufficient background (I’m not a macroeconomist by any stretch). But so many of my friends and colleagues have enjoyed it that I am looking forward to it, and your comments on how it resonated for you have intrigued me. I will report back.

        Ah, narrators. It took me forever to get used to the narrator for The Power of Habit because he had this breezy, informal style that sat oddly with some of the discussions of psychological research and the addiction/compulsion case studies. And when he changed his voice to quote Martin Luther King and describe Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s I rolled my eyes hard. So thanks for the heads-up on the Piketty narrator.

  8. Robin says:

    I’ve been thinking about your post for a few days now, Liz, not in terms of religiosity, but in regard to the difference — for me — between ritual and obligation.

    I feel like my life right now is overrun with obligations — most of them work obligations that make me feel like I’m pushing myself on behalf of someone else’s timeline & sense of artificial urgency, and an inability to ever get on top of the many competing priorities I am trying to balance. It’s frustrating and generates a perpetual feeling of inadequacy, because the more I do, and the better I perform, the more/better is expected of me, and it’s just plain exhausting.

    Ritual, on the other hand, can be relaxing and empowering. I would not consider myself a very religious person in any traditional sense, but I definitely have a spiritual sensibility that shapes my life in abstract and material ways. But it’s not a sensibility that’s heavily dependent on ritual, and that makes it easier for me to feel overwhelmed with obligations, which is how I feel so much of the time.

    So based on the recommendations of you and Sunita, I went ahead and bought Cameron’s book and am going to give her “way” a shot, including morning pages (also, did you see this $3 Kindle book on morning pages: http://smile.amazon.com/Miracle-Morning-Pages-Everything-Important-ebook/dp/B00DIQ9K40/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&qid=1425265084&sr=8-9&keywords=julia+cameron+artist+way). I need to add more rituals back into my life that either allow me to regain a sense of meditative balance or at least some kind of creative nourishment, neither of which I feel like I have right now in abundance. I figure this is at least a start, and it doesn’t feel completely overwhelming, which has been another challenge (I’m exhausted to the point where even trying to change my patterns for the better feels like an overwhelming obligation).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have struggled so often at times when rituals feel like just another obligation to remember that they can help me and feed that part that’s feeling overwhelmed by work (and keeping people and animals fed and clothes clean and and and). Sometimes I need to give myself a break from ritual, but I always come back to some form of it.

      I will be curious to know how you get on with morning pages. I’ve really been liking it. I don’t always write three whole pages. When I start to run out of steam, I quit. But I almost always write a bit more in the evening, sometimes reflecting back on how something nagging at me in the morning turned out, sometimes writing 3 things I’m grateful for, sometimes processing something I need to get out before I go to sleep. I found the unstructured nature of morning pages worked for me–I didn’t HAVE to write “what happened today” if that wasn’t what I needed to write. I feel less as if I’m writing the same thing over and over (sometimes looking back at old journals makes me despair about how in 20 years I haven’t fixed anything about myself).

      One day last week I was supposed to sit in stillness for 5 minutes (this was a suggestion from my video). My head almost blew off, it was so full of noise. No doubt this means I should meditate, but for now, morning pages is something I can actually manage to do without becoming anxious. Sometimes I need a physical ritual, too–walking, cooking, taking a bath–that helps me get out of my head and away from words.

  9. Robin says:

    You’re right that sometimes rituals can feel like obligations. I think one of the things I really missed out on growing up was the sense of meaningful ritual associated with more traditional religious or spiritual practice. After my mom died, I really noted that lack, because even with a deep sense of belief in things bigger than myself, I didn’t have a church to attend or a set of prayers to say or even a religious service to plan for my mom. Part of me longed for that comfort, even though it didn’t come from a lack of “faith,” if that makes sense. It’s just that there are, IMO, some rituals inherent in much religious and spiritual practice that can provide a sense of structure, coherence, and comfort when all the other stuff goes into free fall.

    So now I’m focusing on trying to create more rituals based in an affirmative appreciation for all the things in my life that lie beyond those obligations that don’t originate in a personal passion.

    Re. your experience sitting in stillness, I’ve never been able to meditate without having my mind full of stuff. Ever. For many years I felt like a complete failure at it, until someone suggested to me that maybe the point wasn’t being able to clear the mind, but rather just being able to let whatever is in the mind be there without involvement or judgment on my part. Like a movie running the background. That really helped me, because I had been so focused on *trying* to clear my mind, I was getting more and more attached to the process in a negative way. Now I can at least find a sense of peace in watching those thoughts run past without getting all wound up in them. Which, I’m thinking, is some kind of analogy for what I need to be doing with all these other rituals, lol.

  10. cleo says:

    This is a lovely post and I’m going to comment even though I’m a bit late.

    I’m doing two things for Lent this year – I’ve gotten in the habit of adding one thing and giving up one thing and that seems to work for me.

    I also gave up buying books – I specifically gave up ebooks, since that’s all I buy these days and I have a massive digital TBR pile. It’s fascinating how hard it’s been so far. I really want to buy new, shiny things, especially at the end of a rough week. I’ve done well so far – I had one lapse, where I decided it didn’t count to use my ARe bucks to get a book. I’ve stopped reading the deals posts at DA and SBTB and that helps. It’s easier to be content with what I have when I’m not constantly learning about what I don’t have.

    I’m also sitting once a day for 20 minutes – I always intend to meditate daily but I’d fallen out of the habit a little so I’m using Lent to re-start my practice. I practice Centering Prayer (more or less) – it’s a Christian form of meditation based on monastic and contemplative traditions. I’m mentioning it because of some of the comments about clearing the mind of thoughts vs not engaging with thoughts – I’ve found the approach of CP on thoughts to be quite helpful – if you find yourself engaged with your thoughts, you’re supposed to gently renew your intension (to meditate / open to God). The idea of gently returning from my thoughts was revolutionary for me – I tend not to be gentle with myself. I’ve heard that Vipassana is also a good practice in terms of gently observing thoughts but I haven’t studied it or practice it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Since I haven’t gotten around to a new post yet, I’m thrilled comments are still going on this one. I found when I gave up book-buying last year it made me realize how many books I was picking up mostly because they were deals–something I was maybe a little curious about, not really eager to read. Most of those deals are still in my TBR. I bought much less for a long time after Lent, though gradually it crept back up. And the deals started to look less shiny when I knew I wasn’t going to buy them. I kept a wishlist during Lent, and most of the books I found I didn’t really want 6 weeks later.

      I took a contemplative prayer class many years ago, and centering prayer was one of the things we tried. I think any form of mindfulness can be helpful for getting some distance on the noise in your head, as you and Robin both say.

      • cleo says:

        I’ve noticed the same thing about bargain books. I don’t read most of them.

        I cut back on buying sale booms after Jane’s post on book hording awhile again. I looked at my TBR folder and realized I’d bought all these aspirational books – books I thought I should read or that would be good for me but that I was never going to actually read. Most of my “shoulds” were lit fic and most of my “good for me” books were non fiction. And once I noticed the pattern, it was easy to stop. I’ve actually read a couple from my non fiction pile – I really enjoyed Nelson Mandela’s Autobiography last year – but I’m sure I’ll never read most of the worthy lit fic I bought.

        I’m still susceptible to genre bargains, because I’m more likely to read them (like you, I have several Kearsleys I got on sale but I haven’t read them yet). I’m really a sucker for ARe bonus bucks. And I’m consciously trying to diversify my reading, so I’ll buy AOC’s on sale.

        But at this point, I already own so many books I haven’t read that I can’t really justify buying more.

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