By Shannon Smith
This year, as Lent comes to a close, I am writing a confession. This year, Lent was a fulfilling and spiritual experience for me. For millions of Americans who participate in Lent in some form or the other, I am sure this is not news. They experience Lent by fasting or giving up something else of value, each year for the sake of a higher power. Not so for me. The reason why observing Lent was a confession for me, is that I'm not a Catholic, or even a Christian. I am a proud atheist.
Now my readers must be curious. What is an atheist doing observing Lent? Isn't Lent all about God? Or rather Jesus, which more than a billion people around the world call God? Why would I be interested in all that when I don't even believe in God? Well, here's my story.
I recently read an article about Muslims in Europe participating in Lent as a form of support for Christians and a way to bring the two faiths closer together through a mutual religious observance. Seems valuable, right? I certainly thought so when I read that article. I know from my own reading and discussions that fasting or giving up something is a large part of both Lent and Ramadan, and I often envy my friends and co-workers that spiritual experience.
For years I had been wondering why someone would fast, or even give up something else such as music or television for 30 or 40 days. What good does it do, how does it help? Yet it did seem to help my friends in many ways, and I was anxious to try it. But the timing never seemed right until that article about Muslims in Lent gave me the signal. It's now or never. Try it, and if it does nothing for you, then nobody's the wiser.
But I am happy to report that it did help. I gave up all kinds of meat for Lent this year, and I spent more time in reflection and silence. I tried to be more patient and less frivolous... that meant no impulse buying and no talking back to my parents! It was difficult, especially the meat part, but I managed to go the full 40 days without something I considered a diet staple.
And what did I learn, if anything? I found myself closer to the faith community than I've ever been before. I was able to relate to Christians and Muslims and people of other religious traditions in a way that I had found impossible this time last year. The reason: I could understand their struggles and their joys. Yes, some will say that Lent without God is not really Lent, and I do understand that. But we can all share in each others' religious experiences just a tiny bit, if not to the fullest extent.
Imagine if we were able to empathize rather than just sympathize? If we could actually walk in someone else's shoes? How much better our relationships would be, how much more accepting and caring of each other we could be. These are the lessons I learned as an atheist who observed Lent this year.
Shannon Smith is a senior at University of Houston, where she is studying languages and cultures in a wide variety of settings. In her free time she writes poetry. The vies expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.