It's here. The day every Catholic dreads. The day that kicks off the most depressing six weeks of the year. The day random people on the street will stop you to let you know you have "dirt" on your face. Ash Wednesday, aka the first day of Lent. I don't really consider myself a practicing Catholic. I basically go to church for weddings, funerals, and the occasional baptism. But that wasn't always the case. Once upon a time long ago, I went to a Catholic school where my wardrobe options were simple: plaid jumper with button-down shirt or culottes with a sailor shirt and tie. (The joys of school uniforms.) Once upon a time long ago, I was a little altar girl and proudly attended mass every week to show off my altar girl skills. Once upon a time long ago, right before my first communion when I would suddenly become mortally responsible for all my sins, I even wanted to be a nun. I was convinced it was the surest path to heaven.
My views on Catholicism and religion in general have grown and changed over the years, just as I have, but one thing has always lingered. The last bastion of Catholic guilt buried deep within my soul. Lent. More specifically, the Lenten promise. The commitment to denying oneself some luxury or enjoyment as an act of penitence. And it's not just denying yourself any old thing. It has to be a challenge, something you'd truly miss. As a child, my Lenten promises were pretty simple and almost always food related. No pickles. No cupcakes. No chocolate milk. No cheese. No pepperoni pizza (the only kind of pizza I ate as a kid). As an adult, it became an opportunity to cut out vices, if even for a short while. No caffeine. No alcohol. No meat. No sugar.
Every year I give up something for forty days in an effort to ... well, because ... I just ... I don't know. It's just what you do this time of year, isn't it? I know the church's reason for it - prayer and penitence and blah blah blah - but that's not necessarily why I do it. I do it to challenge myself. To prove I do still have some semblance of will power, even if I don't tap into it the other 46 weeks of the year. In a way, it's like a mini-resolution except you only have to commit to it for 40 days, not 365.
A few years ago I decided, instead of denying myself something, I was going to do something to improve myself during Lent. So I signed up for a 10K the week after Easter. I'd never run more than a mile without stopping to walk and catch my breath, but my Lenten promise was to stick with the training and run all six miles by the end of it. And I actually stuck with it. I finished that 10K and didn't walk a single step of it. Last year, I committed to Forty Days of Fitness where I would exercise everyday for a minimum of thirty minutes per day for all forty days of Lent. I mixed it up a lot to keep it interesting - yoga, spinning, weightlifting, long walks through our hilly neighborhood - and I actually stuck with it. Apparently Lent is the only time I can stick to a solid exercising routine. So this year, I'm taking it one step further. I'm doing forty days of mental and physical health. I've promised myself a minimum of ten minutes of meditative yoga and thirty minutes of actual exercise everyday for the next forty days. The point is not to lose any weight or meet some particular size goal, but just to actually do it. To set aside a minimum of forty minutes a day for myself, my mind, and my body. Maybe it'll be a habit that sticks around after Lent ends, maybe it won't. Considering I haven't really "exercised" since we were hiking around Argentina over two months ago, this is going to be quite a challenge, let me tell ya. But hey, it's only forty days. If a lifetime of Lenten promises has taught me anything, it's that I can do (or not do) just about anything for forty days.