Welcome dear feast of Lent; who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is compos’d of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev’ry Corporation…
-George Herbert, excerpt from “Lent”, 1633
Break out your rice bowl, look up midweek Mass times, and find some good seafood recipes, because Lent begins tomorrow! It is a time for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; what the Orthodox refer to as a “bright sadness” in which we remind ourselves of our mortality in anticipation of everlasting life. It is also, for many of us, a time to choose a particular sacrifice or self-denial we will practice in the next 40 days, giving up a luxury or taking on a penance in order to facilitate detachment from worldly things, preparing our hearts for the joy of the Easter victory.
Carl Spitzweg, “Ash Wednesday”, 1860
It can also be, for some, a routine that has less impact on our lives as the years pass. You might, for example, find yourself in the midst of your Mardi Gras revelries tonight and suddenly realize you haven’t decided what you’re giving up for Lent. Or you might have your go-to sacrifice, giving up chocolate or Starbucks each year and just generally getting on with your business. It’s important to stop yourself and remember the meaning behind your choices, or else Lent can become little more than six Fridays of trying to remember to eat fish for dinner.
Giving things up for Lent is a practice that has become a bit higher-profile in recent years among non-practicing Catholics and others one would not assume would participate. It has become commonplace to see one’s Facebook feed peppered with announcements of friends’ Lenten resolutions, the two most noticeable trends being giving up Starbucks, or giving up Facebook itself. In themselves, these can of course be a boost to mindfulness and self-control. But we must not let Lent become for us just a mini-New Year’s: a night of exuberance followed by a short period of self-improvement. Lent is more than an opportunity to eat healthier or cut down internet use, however laudable those impulses may be. It is supposed to profoundly challenge our hearts; to disrupt our habits in order to shock us into genuine spiritual change. It takes more than not eating chocolate for a few weeks to truly prepare the way of the Lord into our lives.
Here are a few ideas you may want to try this year, if you find yourself in a Lenten rut:
-Try giving up luxuries you’ve forgotten even qualify as such. This can certainly apply to things like Starbucks, particularly if your morning latte has ceased to be a treat and is now a ‘necessity’ you barely even notice anymore. But what if, instead, you gave up hot water in your shower? Many people around the world don’t have access to clean drinking water, let alone a nice hot shower, and after 40 days you’ll certainly appreciate it when you get it back. Try sleeping on the floor, instead of on your bed, and see if you feel more empathy for those who are grateful just to be indoors. Try giving up breakfast (and don’t make up the difference with your lunch) and see how difficult it is to focus, and you’ll be more aware of the struggles faced by those who can’t afford more than one or two meals a day.
-Try adding something to your life for Lent, instead of just subtracting. This could mean adding a practice of which you’re not in the habit, such as daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration, or regular volunteer work. But it could also mean adding a layer of empathy to your interactions, no matter whom they’re with. If someone is irritating, or very different from you, or even if you disagree with their choices, try for the next few weeks to stop yourself before you mentally classify them as an ‘other’. Remind yourself that you don’t know their whole story, and that it’s never enough to distance ourselves from human beings or to let ourselves feel superior. Likewise, you could add some forgiveness to your daily routine. If you tend to forgive other people only after stewing for a while over the way they’ve hurt you, or after you’re sure they know they were in the wrong, try speeding up that process and forgiving them right away, followed by genuinely wishing them well. You’ll be surprised how little you miss the habit of nursing a sense of injustice. You may also start to see fellow commuters, customer service workers, and even difficult coworkers less as obstacles and a little more like neighbors.
-Finally, one habit it’s always helpful to break is that of subconsciously trying to game the system. If you’re always calculating things, such as the minimum you can tithe/donate to meet the Church’s requirements, the most you can eat and still qualify as ‘fasting’, or even the latest you can get to Mass for it to still count, you may be turning into a spiritual miser. Technically following the rules but doing as little as you feel you can get away with is about as disingenuous as giving up Starbucks but visiting Uptown Espresso five times a week instead. If you find yourself doing this from time to time, resolve this Lent to stop counting pennies, spiritually speaking, and be generous with your time and with your attention. If you allow yourself to truly be transformed this season, you will be, and for the better.
In the end you know best what will work for you. If giving up Facebook makes you more aware of how much you itch to be sharing your every thought and whim, and you come back to it more mindful and grateful for the communication it affords, by all means make that your Lenten promise. But if it’s your go-to because it’s the only thing you can think of, try going a little deeper this year. As Pope Francis said in his recent Lenten address:
“Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”
This “bright sadness” will be much brighter for us when we use it to turn our hearts forward toward the Paschal mystery.
It’s true, we cannot reach Christ’s fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Savior’s purity;
Yet are bid, Be holy ev’n as he.
In both let’s do our best.
-George Herbert, excerpt from “Lent”, 1633