A UU Lenten Covenantal Practice
I am a Unitarian Universalist young adult who practices Lent. Not typical for a Unitarian Universalist young adult, you say? Interestingly, I’ve encountered a number of other UU youth and young adults who have been curious about developing a Lenten practice. Some have even kept up their own practice of Lent, which tends to feel pretty isolated and solitary in many UU circles. In the past few years, I’ve flirted with a number of different ways to practice this forty-day period of fasting: everything from giving up things like caffeine, warm showers (never again!), snacking between meals, and meat to adding things to my life, like daily affirmations, meditation, prayer, UU Lent’s photo-a-day social media challenge, and––for this year––a morning coffee-gratitude practice that I’ll unpack for you later.
Growing up as a nonreligious person, Lent wasn’t something I practiced as a child. I had friends who would mention that they were practicing Lent; typically this was expected of them from their families rather than something they were enthusiastic about practicing. I thought of Lent as this negative thing, where one had to suffer by removing important things to their own life. As I started exploring faith, spirituality, and religion in middle and high school and developed my own relationship with a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I became more interested and curious at the possibilities this practice could have for my own spirituality and faith.
A freshman in college, my other young adult friends who celebrated Lent invited me to participate in this fast with them. I admit, I was nervous when I first thought about what I would have to “give up” for these forty days. Should I give up something easy? What if I fail to live up to the commitment? Isn’t it silly for me, a Unitarian Universalist, to practice this ritual of deprivation? I decided I’d try UU Lent’s practice of posting a photo each day of Lent that speaks thematically to each day’s word.
After this initial exploration, I was hooked. I loved the idea of setting aside intentional time for reflection throughout the season. For me, Lent was about reevaluating my own covenants and commitments to my faith and different communities, asking important questions for myself around what I wanted to prioritize in my life and what I could possibly live without. This wasn’t so much a sacrifice I was doing in order to grow closer to the Divine. Instead, it offered me the opportunity to do some deep soul work in exploring my commitments and how I was living these out in the world. And I was motivated to prove myself wrong, that I could in fact go a whole Lent season without caffeine!
After practicing Lent for a few seasons now, I want to make the case that this is a practice grounded in Unitarian Universalist values, particularly with our view of covenants. As a covenantal faith, Unitarian Universalism sees covenant as a living promise of guiding one another toward right relationship with ourselves, others, our communities, and our wider world. We covenant together, for example, to affirm the Seven Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association at each of our congregations. There’s something more to this, however: a UU sense of covenant doesn’t involve making an impossible, perfect, moralistic promise that you’ll never break. We expect that in covenant with one another we’ll inevitably fall short of our values and intentions. We will break our promises to ourselves and to each other. What matters is that we continue to work toward being back in covenant, even if we fail at times to uphold it.
Applying this covenantal lens to a Unitarian Universalist practice of Lent means that we will most likely fall short of our commitment(s) at times. This is highly anticipated. However, Lent is an opportunity to dig deep and cultivate your own sense of spiritual practice. Maybe this means fasting from negative thoughts about yourself or others. Perhaps this might look like giving up toxic relationships or adding practices of self-care and compassion to your daily routine. A Unitarian Universalist sense of Lenten practice is open for you to make this season your own, however you need it to be; the objective, at least how I see it, is to examine your own commitments and covenants and how these are motivated by your faith. How is your faith manifesting in the world? What might you add or subtract in order to live out your faith more fully?
Now, to describe my present Lenten practice! Each day of this season, I have covenanted with another UU friend of mine to avoid purchasing coffees, foods, and drinks in the interest of bringing my own from home. This is more than just a financial decision, as I am reflecting critically on how purchasing so much outside food and drink impacts me and the world around me. For example, instead of using reusable containers, I am tempted to buy things that come in single-use containers from my school’s café for sake of convenience. Likewise, some of the food I buy isn’t as healthy for me; it’s always so easy to say “yes” to fries and a coffee for your meal when you’re a young adult grad student in divinity school! The amount of money I spend on one single cup of coffee is something I want to reflect on. Is a four-dollar coffee really where my money should be going? Is this living my faith and values? Where else could I spend this money?
I’ve also decided to add a contemplative practice to start of each day this season. Every morning, I wake up and brew myself a warm cup of coffee. Before I take a sip, I hold in prayer five things that morning that I am grateful for. For me, these are often people who I am thinking about or things that have happened in the past week. This practice has been so far transformative in how I start my mornings. It puts me into a great head- and faith-space to begin the day. I find that this grounds me in Unitarian Universalism by taking time to remember just how connected I am to others and this beautiful world around me.
However you envision your own Lenten practice is up to you. I encourage you to think deeply about how you might use this tradition to feed your own faith and practice. It’s also refreshing to practice Lent in community with others, if possible (and for accountability reasons, of course!). As you reflect on your own faith, I wish you well on this journey toward exploring your own commitments, covenants, and how you bring these and your full self into the world around you. Blessings to you this season!
Bio: Alex Jensen is a first-year Master of Divinity student at Harvard Divinity School. A graduate of the UUA’s first Summer Seminary in 2013, Alex is pursuing ordained Unitarian Universalist ministry. He currently serves as a field education student intern and program chaplain for the Believe in Success program at Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry in Roxbury, MA.