After the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl victory, many Mississippians are eager to plunge headlong into this year’s Mardi Gras celebration. The annual feast precedes the liturgical season of Lent, during which many Christians give up something they enjoy in anticipation of Easter.
Northeast Mississippi isn’t the heart of Mardi Gras country, but many Christians will start off on Ash Wednesday with a sense of focus and spiritual discipline.
A yearly writing ritual Aubre Wells goes through a lot of stamps during Lent.
Each day she sits down and writes a simple letter to someone who’s touched her life.
“They love me at the post office,” said the mother of four and member of Tupelo First Presbyterian Church.
Starting Wednesday, Wells will resume her yearly ritual of pen and paper.
Like many Christians, she observes Lent both with a sense of anticipation as well as of self-sacrifice. “I find my spirits renewed and lifted, my heart filled with gratitude and awe,” she said.
Wells used to give up something each year, a practice that dates back to the Middle Ages, but she eventually began to question her own motives for doing so.
“The ‘me-ness’ of it bothered me,” she said, explaining that the cosmetic benefits of giving up some foods got mixed up with what she intended as a spiritual exercise.
Going in the other direction and adding a discipline has broadened her appreciation of the gift of time, as well as of small, personal gestures, like letter writing.
“It doesn’t have to be long,” she said. “Just a little reminder that I’m thinking of someone or praying for them.”
Like many conscientious Americans, Eldridge Fleming feels almost embarrassed sometimes by the affluence most Americans enjoy compared to the rest of the world.
“We’re such a wealthy country, and we’re fortunate enough and secure enough economically – even in the midst of a recession – that many of us can go out and get just about anything we want,” he said.
Over the years Fleming, a member of Tupelo First United Methodist Church, has given up various foods and other luxuries during Lent as a way of focusing his prayer life. He believes renunciation should be a regular part of Americans’ spiritual lives.
Like Wells, however, Eldridge has recently taken on special observances for Lent rather than giving something up. That helps direct his attention toward others.
This year he and his wife, Martha, are helping prepare new members for confirmation. Although he’s long been in the habit of saying grace, Eldridge is also taking an extra moment to give thanks before each meal.
“Especially with the devastation in Haiti, it’s important to remember just how blessed we are,” he said.
Giving up technology
Technophiles know there’s a Web site devoted to those who plan to give up the online networking phenomenon known as Facebook during Lent.
Seventeen-year-old Erin Gilmore and her sister, Robyn, 15, appreciate what a sacrifice it is to deprive oneself of technology.
The two recently gave up text messaging for a week as part of a Sunday school exercise at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Tupelo (ELCA).
“We were studying the practices of other religions, like Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, and how they give up things for spiritual reasons,” said Robyn, a freshman at Tupelo High School. She plans to continue the practice through Lent.
Robyn, a junior, found that her friends misunderstood her intentions. “They thought I was ignoring them,” she said, smiling.
Both girls are committed students of the martial arts and have learned that denying the self is an essential part of spiritual and psychological well-being. It makes perfect sense to them that Jesus would have fasted and prayed before starting his public ministry.
Last summer Erin carried a five-pound brick around for a week during the AFFIRM youth camp in Florence, Ala., a symbol of the spiritual and material burdens people drag through life.
Giving things up – even things that seem to be pleasurable – can be a pathway to freedom, according to Robyn.
“Sometimes the things you want and the things God wants are totally different,” she said.
Cleansing the spirit
The Rev. Alniece Liggins takes to heart the true meaning of Mardi Gras, called “Carnival” in Brazil. “It means ‘farewell to the flesh,’” said the associate pastor at Temple of Compassion and Deliverance in Tupelo.
“It should be a sacred situation, a time for cleansing your spirit, a consecrated thing” she added.
This year Liggins is limiting her Lenten diet to “fish and fowl” as a means of entering more deeply into a life of prayer.
Paraphrasing Romans 14: 15-20, she said that giving up one’s favorite foods shouldn’t be a burden, so long as one remembers that “God has blessed us to have him in its place.”
The way of the cross Carolina Amador believes that suffering and sacrifice never have to be in vain, if one remembers to offer them to God.
“During Lent the church invites us to give small sacrifices to God, who has given us everything,” said the mother of four and member of St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo.
Since her childhood in Veracruz, Mexico, Amador has tried to endure her struggles as a form of gratitude.
“I’ve never been a patient person, and I know I can’t achieve a fast if I think of it in terms of 40 days, so, like they do in Alcoholics Anonymous, I take one day at a time,” she said.
It’s just human nature to get attached to things, but, on the other hand, Amador said, God is “total detachment.”
“This is the way of the passion, of the cross,” said Amador. “Separating ourselves from things brings us closer to God.”