Today is Ash Wednesday and the first day of Lent. Wikipedia defines Ash Wednesday as the “Christian practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a sign of mourning and repentance to God” and Lent as “a time of sacrifice for Jesus”. I didn’t know that this religious holiday was today until a 20 year-old came into my office with ashes on her forehead and lamented that she is giving up chocolate, again, for Lent and expressed how much this pains her. So I asked her, “why”?
She was surprised by the question and said, well, um, because I like chocolate a lot. “Yes,” I said, “but why are you giving it up?” Well, um, because you’re supposed to give up what you like the most for Lent. “Yes, but why?” Well, um, so you can appreciate it more after 40 days of not having it. “Okay, but why are you doing this? I mean, what is the purpose of Lent, why was it created?” Well, um, I don’t really know but it’s part of my faith and that’s how I grew up. “So you just do it because that’s what’s always been done?” Well, um, yeah, I guess so. I suggested she just keep eating chocolate, Jesus would probably be happier to know she was enjoying herself.
It doesn’t bother me that she is observing Lent, what is bothersome is that she doesn’t even know why she’s observing it. What makes us creatures of habit to the extent that we are willing to do things just because that’s the way they’ve always been done? Blind faith is one thing but faith without a clue as to why we even have it just makes me keep asking, why, why, why?
The human condition is so strange, especially when humans, like gerbils on a wheel, keep repeating patterns by running in circles as if by doing this, everything will somehow be okay. What motivates me on this path of freedom is to constantly un-write the illusions and burdens of out-moded belief systems that no longer work while dancing joyfully and in a constant state of creation.
I’ve been thinking about what my friend in India said about changing the word spiritual to understanding. What we need to do is deepen our understanding about our beliefs, our humanity and ourselves. Take, for instance, the above scenario. The 20 year old believes she is a good Christian because she is upholding a tradition, right? What she is doing is simply upholding a tradition in order to be perceived as a good Christian without even holding awareness of it, much less understanding the ritual in which she is participating.
Wouldn’t people want to know why they are participating in various rituals? I’ve participated in many different rituals and ceremonies, but I never went into one without first becoming at least knowledgeable enough to understand why it exists in the first place and why it is performed. Participating in a ritual has the potential to become a habitual behavior, lacking depth and understanding and ultimately fixating our assemblage points. Some of these rituals were created centuries ago and continue to fixate the assemblage points of masses of people.
Participating in ritual does not necessarily deepen spirituality. Anyone can and does participate and may potentially believe that they appear more spiritual as a result of doing it. More importantly is to approach ritual with an interest in knowing why it exists and how we can increase our understanding as a result of it. Maybe we will find that we come to understand spirituality in a new way, attain fresh insights or inner realizations or comprehend freedom better but I believe the bottom line will be that when we are open to explore with awareness, we come to understand ourselves better.