It's Lent. The word comes from Old English, and refers to the lengthening of the days in late winter. Which adds a note of hope even to this little-loved, much-misunderstood season.

I have often referred to Lent as a trip to the spiritual dump — an opportunity to let go of attitudes and behaviors I'd prefer to live without — though a bit of my spiritual trash usually ends up sticking to me when the dump run is over. But that's OK, Lent will come again next year.

And in the meantime, I can turn to Spirit, ask for help in naming and laying down my burdens of anger, guilt, grief, denial and all the rest. The naming is important. What is unacknowledged cannot be laid down.

Lent reminds me that I'm here only for a short time; I am both impermanent and imperfect. The world does not need me in order to exist. Much less does it exist for my pleasure or convenience. It's surprisingly easy to forget that, if you're lucky enough not to have to fight to survive each day.

The season is a bit like a blank sheet of paper — or computer screen — requiring that I struggle inwardly to come to some epiphany, some transformation of sight, and a way to express it, however partial the expression seems. It is so tempting to look away from Lent, or the screen, to anesthetize myself with TV or snacks, engage in some mindless task, anything to distract myself from the confrontation with my inner self.

I said Lent is much-misunderstood. It suffers from a bad rap as a time for self-deprivation, feeling guilty, reflecting on our sins and resolving to do better. Sounds like that grapefruit diet from a few decades ago, without the sweetness. Part of the problem is the misunderstanding of sin: it is not bad things we do that make God or Spirit angry with us, like a parent with naughty children. Rather, sin is our tendency to put ourselves first, rather than Spirit and other people. It is separation from Spirit and from others. It is allowing ourselves to think that what we see is all there is. It springs from believing we can — indeed, must — go it alone in life.

When I notice my tendency to live on automatic pilot, treating others as objects, then I can consciously bring my attention to Spirit, to a person or to a task I am engaged with. When I do that, there is no more separation; I am one with life.

Lent is an opportunity to return to Spirit, to ask for healing and for help in living a Spirit-filled life. It is a time for serious reflection and self-confrontation, but not for long faces and self-punishment. Spirit wants to fill us with love and joy, so that we will fill the world with love and joy. And, strangely enough, it is by confronting ourselves and acknowledging our need for others — our need to serve as well as to ask for help — that love and joy are found.

When Lent — the one on the calendar, or the ones that come upon us unannounced — culminates in the death (disempowerment) of the ego, then we are ready to enter the community of heaven that already exists, if only we could find the little, low door by which to enter. The blessing of that community, I believe, is in coming home to the understanding that we are created by love, in love, for love. And the name of that love is service.

It is sometimes said that we cannot love others until we first love ourselves. I think it may actually be the other way around: we learn that we are lovable by offering ourselves to others. Lent is a call to see our own suffering in the suffering of the world and to offer ourselves because, as Spirit's beloved, we can do nothing else.