Digging Out the Sackcloth & Ashes

Lent is coming… as I begin this, which means that surely by the time I hit ‘publish’ Lent will be here. (Hopefully we aren’t to the midpoint yet?)

Whether Easter falls late or early, Lent always seems to sneak up on me – perhaps because the date isn’t consistent, my subconscious never knows when to expect it? In any case, I often find myself scrambling on Ash Wednesday to hammer out my latest version of The Foolproof Plan for the Most Excellent Lent which will of course set me up for The Easter of All Praising and ultimately get me to continue on to live the life of one who, clearly, has it all together. In this my approach to Lent is perhaps in keeping with my approach to most things in life: make convoluted lists, convinced that the perfect plan will save me, but also so overwhelmed by the number of good possibilities that I consider doing everything, but give up and end up doing nothing or nearly so.

Lent has been even more of a mental puzzle to me since becoming a mother. Take fasting: for the last several Lents I’ve been either pregnant or nursing, which makes even the gentle required fast of “one full meal” imprudent. I find that giving up specific foods isn’t always workable, either: when eating for two (and feeding the starving young masses in your home beside) sometimes you just gotta to eat what’s there. Deprived of my usual deprivations, and looking for good alternatives, I discovered that I understood fasting perhaps less than I thought I did. Our Lord does say “and when you fast”, not “if”, so it’s evidently an essential piece of the Christian life. But I find it hard to explain to others (or myself) without sounding like a masochist, or simply the sort of puritanical soul who thinks that God doesn’t want us to take pleasure in anything this side of heaven.

When I was small, Lent was simple: pick something you like, and then don’t to/have it for a while. At some point I was challenged in this attitude by a sermon, probably from my teenage years, about what to sacrifice for Lent. The priest pointed out that we sometimes become fixated on giving up what we like best and don’t think about giving up the bad elements of our life. So rather than giving up coffee (which might help you to be a more cheerful mother to your children after a night of little sleep) or television (which has it’s good programs as well as bad), one could give up complaining, since that can be an occasion to the sins of gossip or despair. One could even take a step further and try (harder) to give up the sins in your life, focusing on some specific vice in a more direct way than usual. I wasn’t sure what to make of his suggestions (after all, aren’t we always supposed to be avoiding sin, not just in Lent?) – but I took his point that fasting can be an opportunity recognize the elements of our lives that lead us away from God, and to grow in virtue.

Over time, though, I found this ‘give up bad things for Lent’ mantra was causing a new shift away from the meaning of the season. It was when I found myself eagerly making plans like this one that has been making the rounds for several years that I began to see the problem. I would make those plans because I admire those who can de-clutter aggressively (definitely not my skill set). I found Lent was becoming for me a sort of self-help program – a time when focused on making me a better person with the goal of improving my life for my sake. But Lent shouldn’t be about me at all. I find that minimalism isn’t necessarily detachment: getting rid of things (when you have sufficient funds to buy the same again should you ever need it)can be more about thefreedom to do or feel as you like than it is about self-deprivation, or giving ‘till it hurts.

Of course, being a slob or a pack-rat isn’t virtuous, either, and I don’t want to throw shade at the lovely “40 bags” folks (Lent really does seem like a great time to embark on such a project). I just mean that it still wasn’t the answer I was looking for, the act that would make Lent fruitful for me.

So in the end I find that I still don’t know how to keep Lent very well, which is perhaps the point: if we had everything in our lives figured out, we wouldn’t need periods of penitence – if we were already perfect we wouldn’t need grace. And perhaps just picking something I like, and giving it up, isn’t the worst idea in the world. Something is better than nothing, and whatever you can is probably just exactly what God might be asking of you.

Because really, why do we fast? Bits of thoughts: first, to unite ourselves with the sufferings of Christ, deepening our understanding of the love he poured out to us in his passion. Likewise to cultivate a spirit of detachment, recognition of the proper order and importance of things, being in the world but not of it. In another sermon I recall from another time – we fast to create an emptiness in our lives which God can fill. It’s about a strengthening a relationship. The more we love Christ, the more we will rejoice at his resurrection.

Keep me in prayer, would you, this Lent?

Postscript: On the practical matter of keeping Lent, fasting is, of course, not the only thing; prayer & almsgiving are likewise pillars of the season. This year I’m trying to remember that if the best fast you can do seems meager, it could be a good time to focus more on these other areas. For the time-impoverished I thought Katie Warner’s suggestion for Lenten prayer was just great. For the sick & tired, Sara at To Jesus Sincerely has an interesting idea about how to fast without fasting, as it were. And Nancy of Do Small Things has a list of general suggestions I found helpful.

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