Lent 2019 begins next Wednesday, March 6. Are you ready?
To me, it’s important to give up this or that comfort, pleasure, or luxury during Lent. I think that’s true because physical sacrifice—large or small—is a tangible way in which we live our spiritual lives with both our bodies and our souls.
We are, after all, not mere souls trapped in earthly bodies. Each of us is a child of God, and we are created physically and spiritually in His image. Naturally, the entirety of our spirituality can’t be contained to our interior. We must live it out in an exterior way, too. We must engage all of our senses (the best way to do this is to go to Mass, of course—next time you go, see if you can count all the ways in which the Church appeals to each of your senses, as well as your interior self).
But Lent isn’t just about breaking bad habits or getting on the wagon with something we’ve been “meaning to try” for weeks or months. Lent isn’t an excuse to be good or a fortuitous opportunity to establish new habits. Lent is when we plant seeds of goodness in our souls and begin to watch them grow.
Self-reflection > Self-denial
In a recent homily, the pastor in our parish had a lot to say about mortification. He wasn’t suggesting we all literally flagellate ourselves, but rather, that we learn to practice self-denial as a spiritual exercise and not just an annual Lenten ritual or a “quick fix” for bad habits. His point was that, when we learn to deny ourselves in even very small ways—taking the corner piece of pizza when we prefer the middle, or leaving the heat off in our car on a quick drive to the grocery store in the winter, for example—and use those small denials as an opportunity for prayer or sacrifice to God, we are learning what little importance these things have in comparison to our ultimate goal in life: to achieve sainthood.
Practicing self-denial teaches us how small our worldly comfort is in comparison to the great Comfort of God’s love for us. It also teaches us that we don’t need to be comfortable to be happy, fulfilled, or on a path to salvation.
But this is only true if we use those moments as brief but thoughtful opportunities to pause and examine ourselves, to enter into conversation with God, and, when applicable, to adjust our behavior moving forward. Self-denial means very little if it isn’t accompanied by self-reflection and, above all, moving above and beyond the self so that the greater glory is given to God.
So Now What?
Pondering all of this, I’m doing something uncomfortable for Lent this year with the full knowledge that I won’t get it right. (I need to learn that imperfection is okay, anyway. A friend recently mentioned that this is part of his approach to doing the Exodus 90 leading up to Easter this year; I just love that mentality and wanted to take it on as well. That’s something I’ll talk about more in a future post.)
The basic sacrifices I’ll make this year are similar to what I did as a schedule for last year:
- Week 1 (3/6-3/12)
- Fast: meat
- Intention: families suffering from infertility and loss
- Week 2 (3/13-3/19)
- Fast: condiments
- Intention: the United States of America
- Week 3 (3/20-3/26)
- Fast: coffee and pop
- Intention: the poor
- Week 4 (3/27-4/2)
- Fast: bread
- Intention: the unborn
- Week 5 (4/3-4/9)
- Fast: TV (other than kids’ shows, because #momlife)
- Intention: my family
- Week 6 (4/10-4/17)
- Fast: chocolate
- Intention: the faithful departed
- Paschal Triduum (4/18-4/20)
- Fast: social media
- Focus: glorifying God
Having a schedule like this was beneficial for me because, unlike a single material sacrifice for all of Lent (with which I tend to get familiar and less thoughtful toward the end of the season), the changing sacrifices helped me continually choose to resist temptation—thus creating more opportunities for that self-reflection.
Plus, having a specific prayer intention for each week meant that I was more mindful about what these sacrifices were for, and how even my infinitesimally minor “suffering” in giving up these things could be joined to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us. It was an intentional effort to express my love, in a small way, for God and my neighbors.
The downside of this regimented scheduled was that, though I vaguely thought about implementing a version of it throughout the liturgical year, its immediacy vanished after Lent. I’m terrible at holding myself accountable for this kind of thing, and without a specific season in mind, inaction took over.
So, in addition to recreating the schedule for this year and renewing my resolution to continue it in some way after Lent is over, I wanted to add in something that will have a lasting impact on my interior life for this year’s observance.
I can’t believe I’m about to say this, because again, I know I won’t do it perfectly, but here goes nothing.
I’m giving up complaining for Lent this year.
It’s the Thought that Counts
If you know me, you probably know that I complain a lot. I’m a pretty positive person, but if asked how I’m doing by someone I know well enough and in the right context, I’m rarely the type to lie by saying “Everything’s fine!”
I complain to make jokes. I complain to express solidarity with others. I complain because my patience is worn thin and I just can’t not. I complain because I’m feeling selfish. I complain to provide a good reason for asking for help from loved ones. Above all, I think, I complain as a way to vent frustration and indignation with circumstances that are out of my control.
Some of these things are okay, I guess. For example, it’s not inherently bad to answer a fellow mom’s unhappy observations by letting her know she’s not alone in her suffering: “Ugh, I’m right there with you!”
But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that complaining takes up a lot of my interior thinking. For every complaint I make out loud, there are at least three kept under wraps.
Grumbling is a knee-jerk reaction for many people, I assume, and I’m one of them. But when it comes to our thought processes, just because it comes naturally doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
In lieu of complaining when I’m tempted to do so, I resolve to utter a prayer—Jesus, I trust in You or Come Holy Spirit—to help lift me up out of that negative mindset and put my eyes on God instead.
Quick caveat: I’m not giving up self-care or asking for help during Lent (those would be futile exercises in helping me grow). I’m not giving up negative emotions or my own sense of need. But I am setting aside lamentation over not getting my way or having things easy. I want to “turn the other cheek” to my own sense of entitlement, which I think will help me be more aware of it and less likely to justify a negative attitude because of it.
So, although I’m saying this as “I’m giving up complaining for Lent this year,” I expect the result will simply be a greater self-awareness of my tendency to complain. More importantly, I want to be more intentionally selfless and put greater trust in God and His will for my life.
Recognizing my own imperfection in this effort will be part of the point: my will can never be enough, but God’s love is more than enough to fill the gaps with grace.
I confess I’m scared of this commitment. I’m frightened of what might come up to tempt me into complaining—justified or not—beginning March 6. But that’s kind of the point, too. Trust.
I hope your Lent is fruitful and your soul grows closer to the Lord this year, and always. God be with you.