by Michael Ketterhagen
Forty (40) is an incredible number with a vast array of meanings and people reactions.
It permeates the cultural/material and spiritual/symbolic worlds of life.
In the cultural world, I know many young people who fear their 40th birthday. Some even “celebrate” 40 years of life with their friends, featuring black balloons, drab party decorations and a morbid, melancholic atmosphere. It’s as though they are demonstrating their dread of getting older and worry about not having the vitality and beauty that they had in younger years.
In the religious world, Christianity has a seasonal practice called Lent. Orthodox and Catholic Christians spend 40 days of fasting, almsgiving and praying in preparation for Passion week and the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. It is a time of spiritual preparation that now in that tradition focuses on performing specific acts of sacrifice. Christians do self-chosen and prescribed practices with the hope that they will come closer to Jesus, the Christ, whom they believe is the Son of God.
The number 40 is also very important in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. It rained 40 days and 40 nights. The Hebrew people roamed in the desert for 40 years before they entered the promised land. Elijah walked 40 days through the desert without food or water to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness before he entered his adult ministerial life.
According to scripture scholars, the number 40 is a symbolic way of explaining a time of transformation. It was considered a period of time where great change happened. The earth was not the same after the flood and the human race had a chance to start over again. The Hebrews left Egypt as a rag-tag group of people and came out of the desert as a forceful nation which took over a land flowing with milk and honey. Elijah became a major prophet of the Jewish people as he journeyed to the Holy Mountain of God. And Jesus was a person who, after he fasted for 40 days, came out of the desert with the knowledge of his divinity and began his public ministry.
In the world of yoga, 40 is also a significant number for transformation. According to Yoga, when one does something for 40 consecutive days, that action will become totally integrated in a person’s life. Whatever one does, without breaking the continuity of the practice during those 40 days, yoga says that the person will reap whatever fruits or benefits that one intends to receive from that practice. One difference in the yoga tradition was that the whole person must be involved in the desired change. You need to truly intend to do the practice and desire the results. Your deep, unconscious mind needed to be changed as well.
I tested out this yoga understanding of fasting because my Christian practice of giving up something just as a sacrifice didn’t work. I approached my Lenten practices of not eating candy or not eating between meals as sacrifices that would bring me closer to God. I really didn’t intend to stop those habits forever, just to experience some sacrifice for that time of Lent. But when I started saying to myself as I fell asleep, “On October 31, 1975, I will quit smoking and not miss it” for the required number of days before October 31st, I had no desire to smoke on the next day and have not smoked since. I had fulfilled my intention.
A sincere practice of physical action and mental intention for 40 consecutive days will make us into new people. Maybe doing a practice like not lying or getting up at a certain time every day or saying a prayer for someone we don’t love might truly change our lives. Maybe sending a blessing to someone of a different political persuasion might change our relationship with that person.
This Christian Lenten time might be a timeframe we could use to become the person we want to be and draw even closer to our Divine Source of Life. A little personal transformation in all of our lives, yoga says, will transform the entire world.
I pray to the divinity within you!