Lent during a pandemic brings new practices

CONNECTICUT—The season of Lent, often seen as a time of sacrifice, of giving up something, may just feel like too much to ask after a year of isolation, mask-wearing, and losses of friends or family members.

The season between Ash Wednesday and Easter represents Jesus’ 40 days fasting in the desert before beginning his public ministry. But the tradition of self-denial and giving to others as a way of imitating Christ may just feel like too much right now, faith leaders say. Instead, those leaders say, Christians may need new ways to look at these 40 days and find new practices to deepen faith and give personal meaning to the season.

“I do think that Lent is a really great time for us to recognize that there really is … fatigue from sacrifice. We’ve given up hugs and we’ve given up visits to Grandma,” said Patrick Donovan, executive director of the Leadership Institute in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport.

“I think last year we were in such shock and we were in duck-and-cover mode. We experienced Lent and we didn’t realize it,” he said. In 2020, Ash Wednesday fell on Feb. 26, about two weeks before the country went into lockdown because of COVID-19.

After being afraid to go to the grocery store, learning to wear masks, living professional and social lives on Zoom, not being able to go to a movie or ballgame, “we’re just exhausted,” Donovan said.

“We are an impatient country … and we don’t like to sacrifice. We are a nation of excess, a people of excess,” he said. Lent is a time to pay attention to how faith is practiced, he said. The message can get lost if by giving up eating meat on Fridays but having shrimp instead.

Instead, Lent is about “eating simply and giving what you might have spent on dinner into the rice bowl for Catholic Relief Services, which is on the table,” he said.

Donovan said giving up something for Lent has actually brought his family spiritual gifts. Katie, 12, for instance, gave up watching YouTube, “which is huge for her,” he said. Their conversation was about “when you’re not doing YouTube, what are you going to be doing?” he said. “For Katie, it’s about filling it with something else, so she’s reading a book, she’s playing with the dog, she’s painting. … She’s not as distracted as she was.”

His 13-year-old son, Liam, shoveled a neighbor’s sidewalk, unasked, when it recently snowed. “He knew it was the right thing to do,” Donovan said. “I have to believe that the conversations we’re having at home about Lenten sacrifice motivated him to do that. It’s really a good time to really practice what we hope to be the rest of the year.”

Donovan’s Lenten practice has been aided by a new puppy, “getting up in the morning and spending 30, 40, 50 minutes outside in the cold in silence. … My Lenten practice right now is to keep that up but begin to fill it with prayer.”

“I think part of the challenge is this Lent is a call for innovation. We’ve got to get creative with our sacrifice,” using our time to do something like checking on a neighbor, he said.

The Rev. Mary Barnett, priest-in-charge of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity in Middletown, said the pandemic has been so hard on people that “sometimes we have a harder time feeling pleasure and finding some bit of that, and that too can be part of our relationship with God, and it’s not just giving things up.”

She suggested to “be good to yourself and really think about what’s good,” filling a need by spending time with a loved one.

“I feel like paying attention to the signals your body gives you rather than just your brain is really helpful,” Barnett said. “It’s important to listen to how sad we are and the losses we’ve had. It’s really hard.”

The Rev. Ryan Lerner, the chaplain at the St. Thomas More Chapel and Center at Yale University, said the pandemic has posed the question of “what does it mean to take up one’s cross … when the cross enters into our life in a way that we would not choose? … All of us have been asked to sacrifice or called to sacrifice in ways we never would have chosen or never would have imagined.”

But Lent gives us the opportunity of “letting go of those things that we sometimes cling to that clutter up our lives, to make room for God,” Lerner said.

Cultivating “a sacrificial spirit … frees us up. That is a positive thing,” Lerner said. “To be in dialogue with God, to recognize God’s presence in our lives and to give to others, whether it be our time, our attention, our prayers.”

Lerner and three others from St. Thomas More sprinkled ashes on people’s heads on Ash Wednesday. “The first real in-person thing we’ve done may be the only thing for the foreseeable future,” he said. Besides Yale students, faculty and staff, “we also had students from the University of New Haven and Southern who also came,” he said.

He said receiving ashes is more than just a tradition. “Go out with that ash on your forehead. How are you going to be ambassadors for Christ?” he said.

And he urges Christians to stay flexible and be present to opportunities to give to others. “It’s easy to be stuck to your calendar and your schedule,” he said.

Members of St. Thomas More also were given a Lenten kit including a booklet containing daily Scripture readings through Easter, a small jar of sand as a meditative tool, the Catholic Relief Services “rice bowl” for almsgiving and a copy of “Sacred Space for Lent 2021,” with daily prayers by the Irish Jesuits.

Aside from giving up something himself, which he doesn’t disclose, Lerner said he is praying throughout the day at the liturgically appointed times.

“As priests and religious, we make a promise to pray the liturgy of the hours. It’s very easy on a busy day to blast through it in the morning,” he said. “You’ve got to carve out a little bit of time during the day.”

The Rev. Joseph Marcello, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Trumbull, said this Ash Wednesday “had the biggest turnout in anyone’s memory. … It was hundreds and hundreds, probably well into the thousands,” he said.

Marcello used Q-tips to mark a cross in ashes on each person’s forehead. “Several people told me with tears in their eyes that this was the first time they had been back in church since the pandemic began,” he said.

Lent has given people the opportunity of “returning to a ritual that has been a constant in their lives, connected with people on a very deep level,” Marcello said.

“I think that as the pandemic subsides, as people get their vaccines, a lot of people are waiting for a tipping point, a moment to come back, and Ash Wednesday is the perfect time for that,” he said. “As we reapproach the normal that was taken from us a year ago, very few things connect with folks as deeply as Mass, liturgy, worship and prayer.”

The parish has had several “drive-through food drives. We have had an unbelievably strong response to those,” Marcello said. “We’ve delivered truckloads upon truckloads” of food, dry goods, baby supplies and other items, he said. “I’m just really encouraged to see that our parishioners, a goodly number of them, have not turned in on themselves, isolated, [but] have really stepped up.” Non-members also have dropped off items at the church, he said.

To the Rev. Ximena Diaz-Varas, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Torrington, Lent is an opportunity to perform “acts of kindness, being that person of God for others. … What is that thing that is going to help them be aware of the presence of God, which is basically what Lent is about.”

While it is good to make a sacrifice, “Giving up chocolate with nothing behind it is not going to make us closer to God,” she said. But small acts of kindness, such as reaching out to someone who lives alone, “will help us to see God working in this time, even in this pandemic, even in winter with storm after storm,” she said.

“I also have found that people are just on edge and we need to be kind to one another, and we need to be graceful with one another,” Diaz-Varas said. “Sometimes we feel we need to do huge things, but it really begins with our own heart. … If we all start with our heart we can change the world.”

The Rev. Frederick “Jerry” Streets, pastor of Dixwell Avenue United Church of Christ in New Haven, said parishioners have talked about “what it was they wanted to do for Lent,” trying new approaches to Bible study and prayer.

“They pray regularly, but they’re going to try to pray in a different way.” For some, “that meant getting on their knees, which they haven’t done in a long time,” he said.

“There’s a broader interest that people have in nurturing their sense of their spiritual life in the midst of such grief and sorrow and vulnerability,” Streets said. “The Lenten season has a way of making it more acute because of the emphasis on repentance and transformation.”

Streets said maintaining connections among parishioners, even if online, has been critical. He said he had been reading about the 1918 flu pandemic and “one of the things that was happening was that local newspapers … were publishing weekly meditations and sermons and spiritual advice.”

Now, he said, in addition to the weekly services on YouTube, there is Bible study and a general meeting in which people can share their experiences and information. At a recent meeting, “people were giving information about their COVID experience,” Streets said. “They were sharing their experience about overcoming their anxiety about getting the shot and the side effects, if any … and those stories were very helpful to people.”

New Haven’s Mayor Justin Elicker and Health Director Maritza Bond have been online guests at the meetings as well, he said. “All of these are means of helping people to stay connected, but it’s also a means of getting resources to live their life.”

Written by Ed Standard, Originally posted in the New Haven Register