As the Dean traced the ash cross on my forehead and said, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ" and the Cathedral choir sang Allegri's Miserere, what flashed through my mind, once again, was the image of a phoenix. Ashes as the necessary stage of burning the old, so that the new might be reborn. Ashes as catharsis.
When I was a child growing up in Rome, Lent was a gloomy forty days, with a Holy Week of wailing and gnashing of teeth, expressed through sober, serious television programmes like Passion plays, religious contemplations and funereal classical music. I have a vague memory of my grandmother chiding me for dancing around the room one Good Friday. Lent had be heavily sad. Lent as repentance, as stating our unworthiness. Lent that felt like a punishment after the joy of Carnival. Lent as fasting or at least giving up on something you found pleasurable.
But what if Lent was originally intended not as six weeks of gloom and doom but as an opportunity for renewal? After all, it wouldn't be the first time that the wisdom and practicality of Christian teachings was changed, mistranslated or misinterpreted through centuries of organised religion.
I disagree with Lent as moral self-flagellation the same way as I find deeply disturbing the presence, in prime position, of the crucifix in churches. Why focus on the image of intense pain, injustice and death when what is actually at the heart of Christian doctrine is the Resurrection, i.e. the triumph of Life over death? I have no doubt that theologians and ministers will provide a valid reason for that, but my instinctive feeling is that you get further by focusing on joy and Light than on sadness and darkness.
"'Church' has become a dirty word," a priest once told me. It certainly has in the UK, where backs all too often stiffen and looks become embarrassed and vacant as soon as I mention the fact that I occasionally go to church. Given the laissez-faire attitude of the Church of England, where you can opt for High, Evangelical or Traditional or an assortment thereof, I find this backlash something of a disproportionate response. Still, whose fault is it, really, if "church" has become "a dirty word"?
Everything that happens on this planet has a rational explanation, whether we have come up with it by now or not. The universe is governed by physics and the laws of nature. As a child and teenager, I used to think of the world as a perfect circle, with no loose ends. So whenever I could not understand something, I felt as though this was because all I could see was a segment of the circle, just a line that wasn't connected to anything, thereby not making any sense. And yet the Church still puts an emphasis on almost blind faith. The magic and supernatural elements that make Christianity so wonderful to some are also a strong deterrent to others. Isn't it time the Church began to explain its philosophy – I choose this term rather than doctrine deliberately – in a more 21st-century-friendly context of society, psychology and physics? Increasingly, the Church is trying to become more "accessible" by dropping – much to my sadness – the poetry from the language of prayers. By doing that I feel it brings the Divine down to the limited dimension of humanity; it does nothing to encourage its unlimited side. Replacing "thou" with "you" and "trespasses" with "sins" is not enough if you maintain the party line that miracles have an element of the supernatural that cannot – and almost must not – be understood with our brains but accepted through faith. Faith, like love, cannot be supplied on demand. Besides, as I once remarked to a priest after Sunday service, humanity can no longer be treated as a child who accepts whatever his or her parents say as though it were unquestionable truth. "We are teenagers now," I said, "we have doubts about everything, so we need plausible answers." Why not appeal to the human side that resides in the totality of possibilities? The side capable of absolute wonders?
Again, when I was about ten or eleven, and I heard a minister say that we, children, should be "as good as the Child Jesus", I replied, "But Jesus's father was God, while mine was a man, so he had a clear advantage over me – what's the point in my even trying?" Yet another of many contradictions and inconsistencies in Church teachings.
Heavily sad Lent. Lent as repentance, as stating our unworthiness. Lent as fasting or at least giving up on something you found pleasurable – and which you fully intend to resume come Easter Sunday. What if it were Lent as taking stock, as a time for introspection, as cleansing, as shedding old habits and creating new ones? Lent as rewiring our brains? In other words, Lent as a wonderful opportunity for a physical and mental detox – a re-set button?
A field that fascinates me is that of neuroplasticity and the possibility of redirecting our neural pathways. Obviously, the Ancients probably did not have "neuroplasticity" in their vocabulary but, on some other level, they were clearly aware of its existence in practice, or there would have been no yoga, no Qi Gong, and no Lent.
Why forty days? I don't know. There is a school of thought that says it takes twenty days to break a habit and twenty to form a new one. Forty is a number that recurs in the Old and New Testament, in other religions, in yoga practices, in some fairy tales and in popular beliefs. When, age six, I had the measles, my family kept me indoors and in the warmth for full forty days, to make sure I had fully recovered (there is an interesting Huff Post article on the forty-day topic by Rebecca Grainger).
Lent is also about fasting. I fast for twenty-four hours once a week. I find it invigorating and refreshing. There is evidence to suggest that fasting responsibly can have many health benefits. It acts as a re-set function. It can reduce inflammation (remember the old saying "Starve the fever and feed the cold"?), is cleansing and allows the body to focus on spring cleaning and healing while not busy digesting.
I love Lent. Not the Lent of repentance but of taking stock, of trying to reroute neural pathways, shedding old habits and forming new, more creative ones. Lent as a wonderful opportunity to reinvent oneself.