A Woman’s Lent

Gymnopedies:Lent et DouloureuxWhat does Lent, the annual Church season of fasting, repentance, almsgiving, and prayer which we enter today, have in common with a woman’s monthly cycle? It seems an incongruous analogy, but as I was pondering a post on menstruation (and I hope that by talking more about it, it becomes less “icky” and more meaningful), the similarities between it and Lent became striking.

As I understand it, Lent is a season of slowing down, of detaching ourselves from the frantic rhythms of high-speed internet and media spin and tuning in our senses to the deeper, all-encompassing pulse of God’s life in the world.  A woman’s period, I think, is also an invitation to slow down and recalibrate our sense of time not to man-made rhythms but to the creaturely cycle of life and death.

As I wrote in my last post, the pain and discomfort our bodies experience in illness can be a wake-up call, reminding us that we don’t have the unlimited resources of God. Likewise, for women, when our insides cramp and bleed each month, and we feel the need to curl up and sleep more, we can welcome this time as the body’s invitation to slow down and remember our vulnerability in light of God’s sufficiency.

In Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent, she paints an imaginative picture of how Jacob’s wives embraced their cycles. I’m not sure how this worked or if it’s at all realistic, but in the book, all the women in Jacob’s tribe got their periods at the same time. In the red tent, they leave their everyday duties and come together as women, using the time of their periods to rest, tell stories, and deepen their sisterhood. Okay, so we don’t have instituted “period” time off as contemporary women, and I somehow doubt that Jacob and his sons would have been very happy with all the womenfolk taking a three- to four-day break from cooking and cleaning each month. But I do think there are ways to embrace and celebrate menstruation instead of wishing it were over faster and feeling gross during it, and Diamant’s story points us in the right direction.

I also love how women’s cycles, like Lent, hint at something more important – new life. Month after month, the womb sheds its lining (which to women who are hoping to conceive, can seem like a disappointing “not-life”) and prepares again for the possibility of nurturing another life within. It’s almost sacramental, this bodily ritual that parallels the Church’s annual custom of inhabiting Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Though foreshadowing the resurrection, Lent is a somber season. We ponder our brokenness and the world’s suffering as a way to prepare our hearts to truly receive God’s gift of life through the resurrection. We practice the spiritual discipline of fasting during Lent as a way to embody our repentance. One of my pastors reflected beautifully on the role of fasting in the spiritual life. The voluntary hunger that we go through during a fast, he said, serves to alert us to a deeper spiritual hunger. These pangs become not a distraction from the spiritual, but rather a physical means to enter into larger spiritual realities.  Our bodily sensations bring home in marrow and blood what it means “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

A college roommate told me once about how she was letting the bodily sensations of her period usher her into deeper spiritual awareness. As she pressed into the pain and discomfort she experienced each month, it became a way to connect with the pain and suffering of others. She made her period a regular time to step back and reflect on life. Her physical cycles led her to a greater emotional and spiritual receptivity and expanded her ability to “suffer with” (the root meaning of com-passion).

Does it seem crude to liken the messy, bloody experience women go through each month with the holy, sacred season of Lent? I don’t think so. The dictionary defines sacrament as “a Christian rite…that is held to be a means of divine grace or to be a sign or symbol of a spiritual reality.” While I would never say that menstruation is a sacrament by any means, it does have sacred qualities. If we are open to it, our cycles can point us to holy rhythms of life and death, remind us of our humble, creaturely origins, and lead us to a new level of compassion with those who suffer. That’s quite a divine grace, if you ask me.