A Woman’s Lent

What does Lent, the annual Church season of fasting, repentance, almsgiving, and prayer which we are entering now, have in common with a woman’s monthly cycle? It seems an incongruous analogy, but as I was pondering a post on menstruation, the parallels with 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 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.

I have written before that sometimes the pain and discomfort that 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 and God’s sufficiency.

Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent 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 left their everyday duties and came together as women, using the time of their periods to rest, tell stories, and deepen their sisterhood.

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. Diamant’s story points us in the right direction.

A woman’s cycle, like Lent, also hints at something beyond itself, that is, 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 rhythm of inhabiting Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Though leaning toward 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. Our voluntary hunger serves to alert us to a deeper spiritual hunger, I once heard in a sermon. 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 to “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 rhythms led her to a deeper 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 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 menstruation is not a sacrament by any means, it does have sacred qualities. If we are open to it, our periods can point us to holy rhythms of life and death, work and rest; remind us of our humble, creaturely origins; and lead us to a new level of compassion with those who are suffering. That’s quite a divine grace, if you ask me.

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