The Season of Lent

A critical part of organized religion is the organized bit. Most Christian denominations hold, to varying degrees, with a series of rather specific traditions that have been around for centuries. In fact, there are religious calendars. (On the fridge in Lyon we even have a saints’ days calendar sent out by the local elementary school.) Growing up, I felt the distinct pulses of two calendars simultaneously: the Lutheran liturgical calendar and the American school system calendar.

Neither of these calendars seem to have much to do with the “real” calendar. Just as we’re celebrating Jesus’ birth in December, we’re coming to the end of a calendar year. We start school in the 9th month of the year (or sometimes, unfortunately, the 8th) and at that point the secular year is already 3/4 of the way done! However, both of these calendars relate to the season changes of the natural world.

From an alien perspective, it might make sense to start school on January 1 and finish the year on December 31. This would be neat and tidy, but our current system isn’t meant to be easy on databases but is rather supposed to accommodate the times of year when farmers would need extra labor (i.e. their children’s help). Winter tends to be a time when farmers might possibly have spare time, so winter makes a good time to send children to school.

The growing season for major crops like corn, wheat, and hay is the summer, and harvesting these crops is–or used to be–a major community endeavor. Haying is truly brutal work; on top of the physical labor involved, haying requires at least two or three consecutive days of hot, dry weather to ensure that the hay does not rot or develop mold. Farmers watch the weather even more obsessively than usual and hay crews are on stand-by.

The religious calendar moves along with its own stress points as well. We are currently in the season of Lent, in anticipation of Easter. From a non-agrarian perspective, this season always seems a bit weird. Part of the tradition of Lent is some form of fasting. In my father’s Roman Catholic childhood household, they wouldn’t eat meat (except fish) on Fridays. Now, my father and I often talk about giving up chocolate (but rarely, in practice, actually do).

In recent times, people have started “giving up” other things besides food items to experience some kind of fasting. Going off Facebook from Ash Wednesday to Easter is a popular way to do this. Although social media and animal meat don’t have a lot in common, I think this kind of fasting makes a lot of sense. We often talk about living in an “overconnected” world, and while I think you can debate whether that’s true or not, I would say that most people in developed countries are far more intimately acquainted with their social media accounts than their food production. So if you are trying to really experience a purposeful withdrawal from something, social media may be the way to go.

However, the religious calendar of fasting and other dietary restrictions often links up with food production in an interesting way. Although a modern conception of summer rests more on anticipation of hot summer days than hay-making, spring is actually sort of cold and bleak. Early spring in particular is a rough time for agrarian people. Summer and fall are times of bounty (hopefully), and some of that can be preserved to last through winter. Winter is also the traditional time to butcher animals, as the winter cold is ideal for minimizing spoilage and disease.

Spring is very worrisome, if you’re living seasonally. You are beginning to plant, but very little is ready to eat yet. You have probably exhausted a good portion of the supplies you laid in for winter. In bad years, you may actually be starving. So it makes sense, really, to fast.

Neither the school calendar nor the religious calendar had ever made much sense to me until I began to become more agricultural. When you start to join in with the seasonality of planting, growing, harvesting, and preserving, suddenly the undefined roots of our past start to stand out clearly. Other big rhythms we follow mostly without question begin to make a certain amount of sense. Celebrating a “bountiful harvest” at Thanksgiving only works if you actually have a harvest; otherwise, it’s just a particularly expensive trip to the grocery store.

It’s nice that we can not-starve in February, March, and April. It’s nice to be able to buy foods we love practically any time of the year. It’s weird (but still pleasant) to be able to get a banana seemingly anywhere in the developed world in any season. I’m not suggesting that we totally eschew grocery stores or nonseasonal products. (At least, I’m not going to make that suggestion in this post.)

What I will say is that the way we organize our years is not as arbitrary and senseless as it can seem. Eating seasonally is one of the many buzz words in the modern sustainability movement, and it’s a good and reasonable practice with a strong basis of real ways seasonal eating cuts down on carbon emissions. But beyond the question of emissions, considering the agrarian cycle has more wide-reaching benefits.

While we use the phrase “overconnected” frequently, what I find among my group of friends and acquaintances is more of a sense of disconnection. This point has been made many, many times before; we are able to connect on social media, we live in a globalized society, yet we rarely encounter the true sense of belonging to a community. Certainly I find this to be the case. I have friends in Lyon, but I have more friends scattered over at least five continents. I get emails from four different time zones on a regular basis.

I’m not suggesting that we all go back to a time when we would most likely be starving right now, but I will say that being mindful of the agricultural calendar–though it is yet another calendar to “keep track of”–can help start to bring a different sort of order to our lives. I’m always glum in winter, but when I think of winter as a season rather than a period of time with a certain kind of horrible weather, I can see it in the broader context of seasonality and progression. When spring is allowed to be a time of impatience and worry and fretting about being well-prepared for the coming year, it gives me a season to do all of these things and realize that this will soon change, just as spring will turn to summer.

Whether your Lenten fasting is food- or social media-based, it’s always useful to go outside more, to raise your personal awareness of the seasons around you. If you’re not in a temperate, Northern Hemisphere climate, your sense of this will be quite different from mine–but we all observe yearly changes and cycles, no matter what kind of climate or which hemisphere we may find ourselves in.

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