Christians aren’t the only ones to have a special season for spiritual development. Buddhist monks, especially Theravadans, have Vassa, when, because of the monsoon rains, they give up their wandering and stay at home for three months. Monks devote more time to meditation, study and the teaching of the younger monks. Lay people also step up their spiritual practices and good works (including feeding the monks).
Muslims respect Ramadan, the month in which the Koran was transmitted, by not eating or drinking between dawn and sunset. This is meant to renew their focus on prayer. They try to recite the entire Koran but also to avoid anger and malice. As they eat less they increase their spiritual food.
Secularised westerners avoid the religious angle with less transcendent motives but for a set period may go on a diet, sign up for a course or go the gym.
Christians feel inspired by the biblical symbol of the desert as a place of purification, reduction to essentials and encounter with God. It lasts for 40 days (46 if you include the Sundays on which some feel no Lenten observance is appropriate as it is the day the Resurrection is always celebrated). It is a preparation for the Paschal mystery, so that one can enter into Easter more consciously and profitably. It is also an imitation of the forty days (a complete number) that Jesus spent in the desert, was tempted with pride, power and self-reliance by different assaults of the ego but emerged strengthened, clarified and prepared for his life-mission.
In a celebrity culture we idolise those who successfully create a unique public self-image that makes them the envy of the masses. Sports personalities, actors or rockstars exemplify the goal of standing out from the crowd so that the crowd can imitate their style and even their ideas. Celebrity is thus a self-contradictory trap, imitating the inimitable.
Spiritual exemplars are not celebrities, both because they have no interest in fame and because they are happy to be imitated and excelled. They are sages – wise explorers who live in harmony with their environment and have the good of others as their first priority. “I have come not to judge the world but to heal it. I have come so that you may have life in all its fullness’ is how Jesus expresses this. They are not self-consciously regarding their own performance or watching their ratings. They teach by the highly conscious unconscious example that is the soul of altruism.
The Lent pilgrim should be happy to imitate such a teacher and thereby shed the obstacles, attachments and bad habits that hold them back. Following the teaching and example of Jesus with regard to interiority and his frequent withdrawal from activity to contemplation, from the market place to desert, is implicit in our chosen disciplines of Lent and especially in the twin pulse-beat of the daily meditation.