"Moses remained there on the mountain with the Lord forty days and forty nights. In all that time, he ate no bread and drank no water…When Moses came down Mount Sinai carrying the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, he wasn’t aware that his face had become radiant because he had spoken to the Lord."
Exodus, Chapter 34, Verses 28-30
"And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, turned back from the Jordan (River), and was brought in Spirit to the wilderness, for forty days being tempted by the Adversary, and he did not eat anything in those days…"
Luke, Chapter 4, Verses 1-2
At the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, plants and trees awaken from dormancy, animals awaken from hibernation, and human thoughts turn to cleaning, cherry blossoms, and young love. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church and a significant portion of the world’s Christians engage in Lent.
For many, the word Lent conjures memories of fish on Friday, meatless dinners, and "giving something up." Some non-Christians joke about giving up Lent itself. What is Lent, anyway, and is it relevant for those who practice more than one religion, or religion(s) that aren’t Christian?
What is Lent?
Lent, from an early Germanic word for "spring" itself, is a liturgical observation. In the Catholic Church, it is an obligation for all adults, and begins with Mass on "Ash Wednesday," so named for the practice of having one’s forehead marked with the sign of the Cross in the ashes of palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. For Orthodox Christians, Lent begins on "Clean Monday," with ritual baths to wash the body and home, in addition to special rituals to offer and gain forgiveness for wrongs done in the previous year.
Regardless of which day is designated as its beginning, Lent includes forty days of practices, including fasting or abstaining from certain foods or actions, church attendance, charitable service, and prayer and meditation. Officially, Lent ends on Holy Thursday, the night of Holy Week when, according to tradition, Jesus Christ spent His last supper with His disciples. According to Catholic.org, "The goal of every Christian is to leave Lent a stronger and more vital person of faith than when we entered." Sounds like something any person of any faith could get behind!
In Haitian Vodou (as the vast majority of Vodouisants are Catholic by birth and tradition) we observe Lent. It may seem strange that we honor a liturgical observation from the religion of conquerors and slave owners, especially since the Roman Catholic Church was expelled from Haiti shortly after its independence in 1804, and did not return for a generation. But Lent is a special, quiet time in our peristyles (Vodou temples). It is a time we use for spiritual rest and relaxation, and the techniques Vodouisants use to celebrate Lent can be adapted to any religious practice; after all, Vodou is as much Catholicism as it is indigenous African, Caribbean, and European traditions.
Lent and Water: Spiritual Baths
There is a repetitive symbolism of water and the number forty in Lent. Noah spends forty days and nights in an ark above a divine flood; Moses strikes a rock to bring water to thirsty Israelites during their forty-year wanderings; Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River and heads out into the wilderness for forty. Holy water is sprinkled on people and houses and churches; people take special baths and wash their houses.
In Haitian Vodou, we take various types of spiritual baths before and during Lent. These are magical treatments made of herbs and water, versus suds-and-a-bathtub kinds of baths. You can make such a bath for yourself. Consider taking it on Ash Wednesday or Clean Monday, and any time afterward that you feel you could use spiritual cleansing or clarity.
Light a new white candle and pray to your patron deity, whether the Christian God (Bondye, as we call Him in Vodou) or someone else, and ask for guidance and blessing as you do this bath. If you can, leave this candle burning the entire time from when you start this work until you have completed the bath and dried yourself off.
To a clean basin or bucket of room-temperature water, add:
- One or two handfuls of fresh (not dried) basil leaves
- Seven key limes or citrons, cut in halves (another holy number; besides, forty would be ridiculous)
- A handful of WHITE mustard seed (or "yellow" mustard seed. Don’t use black seeds. Make sure the seeds are whole and not crushed or powdered)
- A pinch of rock salt or sea salt
Once you’ve put all these things in the basin, put your hands in the water and stir. "Wash" the leaves and fruits by smashing them together like you were kneading dough, but try not to rip or shred them. It’s all right if they come apart in the water due to the motion. Squeeze the limes a little bit, but not so much that they lose their round shape.
While you’re doing this, pray to your ancestors, gods, and spirits about what you would like to cleanse. Pray aloud if you are comfortable doing so. Ask the spirits of the leaves themselves to help you heal yourself and remove negativity, and thank them for doing this work for you.
When the basil has tinged the water yellow-green, the bath is ready. Step back into the tub and take the basin with you. Hold the basin up to the four directions; for us in Haitian Vodou, those are east, then west, then south, then north, so your feet move in the sign of the Cross. There is a mystical reason for this pattern that empowers the bath—don’t change it up, even if your traditions are different. Then set the basin down inside the tub (by now, you emptied out the tub and rinsed it after your earlier bath/shower).
Take a handful of leaves and a lime in your right hand, even if that is not your dominant hand. Use the leaves and lime like a washcloth—rub them into your skin, starting at your shoulders and moving downward. It is important NOT to scrub your face or head, and it is important to scrub only going DOWN, toward the ground, as this bath is removing things from you (if it were a blessing bath, you would be scrubbing entirely in upward movements). If the leaves and lime go flat, pick up another handful and keep going. Drop used plant material into the tub, but be careful not to drop it back into the basin, because it contains all those negatives! When you’ve scrubbed thoroughly, pat yourself dry with the towels—do not rinse. Then extinguish the candle.
To clean the tub: If you can, take the basin (with the remains, don’t put those down the drain if you like your plumbing) to a crossroads near your home. Add three or seven new pennies, and let them fall when you pour out the bath; this is to pay Papa Legba for being willing to take away the things you washed off. If you cannot go to a crossroads, find a place on your property where two paths cross (two sidewalks, a driveway and a sidewalk, etc.) and pour the bath there. Remember to pour it on the earth at a corner of the crossroads, not in the paved center! Once you’ve emptied the basin, say thank you, then walk away and don’t look back.
You can repeat this bath three consecutive days if you want a deep cleansing. You can take it in the morning (you’ll smell great all day) or before bed, to bring on restful sleep and dreams. If you can wear white clothes after this bath, this conveys its own blessing. Follow up with spiritual practices: prayer, meditation, writing or reading about your faith, and/or doing charitable acts for others.
As part of your Lenten celebration, you can do some of the other things that Vodouisants traditionally do. You may abstain from certain foods or actions, as a symbol of your desire to purify, or to free yourself from bad habits related to food, alcohol, tobacco, etc. Like us, you may opt not to perform magic or divination for others, in order to focus on yourself and your spiritual development; or you may opt not to engage in any negative forms of magic unless necessary. Some peristyles close only for Ash Wednesday and Holy Week; others close the entire forty days of Lent, with no ceremonies or magical work being done.
Whether or not you identify with the religion from which Lent comes, these forty quiet days, to cleanse and prepare our strength for the future, can be a very special and holy time. Should you choose to incorporate them into your personal spirituality, I hope that they bring you peace, power, and insight.