As I'm sitting in a silent house, sleeping baby sprawled across my lap, the sun slipping toward the horizon, thoughts of Lent come easily. Our Ash Wednesday was so hectic I barely had space to realize the meaning of the day, that we had entered into the season of Lent. Today, though, for some reason it is much clearer.
What are you giving up for Lent? It's a question we are all familiar with, hearing it from fellow Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and at times the familiarity of the idea seems to cheapen it. You hear that people are giving up sweets, "because we always do," or alcohol, "because my wife is pregnant and she can't drink anyway." Kids try to give up things they don't like: "Sorry Mom, I can't eat that--I gave up spinach for Lent."
I read another blogger's reflections on giving things up recently--I'm sorry I don't remember who, or I would share the link--where he wondered how much more seriously people would take the decision of what to do for Lent if they were giving that thing up forever, not just foregoing it for the next 40 days. The idea struck a chord with me, because last year Matt and I both gave up complaining. We did a pretty good job of sticking to it through Lent, but I think we all know how much of an impact it had after Easter... None. We had slipped right back into our old habits by the end of the Easter octave.
Is complaining a good thing for me? No. I don't even particularly enjoy it. It is just a habit, a bad habit, that may occasionally make me feel better if I'm having a crummy day but more often adds an air of negativity to my own perception of life as well as my listener's. How much better would life be, for me and those around me, if I sacrificed my desire to complain permanently?
Now, I know there are several different rationales for the concept of "giving something up" during Lent: depriving oneself of a good thing for the sake of offering the suffering up or strengthening one's self-control, devoting one's time (free time or time which would have been spent doing something else good) to prayer and charitable work, and rooting out something which has grown up in one's heart, dividing one from God. I would submit, though, that all of these can be boiled down to sacrificing the desire for something for the sake of growing in holiness.
Giving up Brussels sprouts one year, spinach the next, and systematically working your way until you aren't eating any green vegetables isn't what I'm talking about. Scripture and Tradition both clearly show that physical fasting is important, and giving up certain foods during Lent is a great example of the first reason above (offering up a privation and strengthening self-control). Unless you have an inordinate love for Brussels sprouts which gets in the way of your relationship with God, though, giving them up for the rest of your life simply isn't going to have much spiritual impact.
Giving up complaining one year, committing to set aside the smartphone when you're with your family members or during prayer time the next, and slowly chipping away, Lent after Lent, at the things separating your soul from God? And doing your best to never go back to a vice once you have given it up? That could do so much.
So what am I giving up? Well, I'm picking up last year's "no complaining" again, but I am also going to try to focus on the virtue of obedience and what it means for me at this stage of my life. I realized yesterday that being unable to fast was more of a struggle than fasting itself has ever been. It took more effort than I like to admit to acknowledge that, if the Church says that nursing mothers are not among those supposed to follow the dietary restrictions of fasting, given that it is likely to deplete milk and thus harm the baby, then it would be wrong for me to do it.* Over the next six weeks I also plan to read more theological works in place of fiction, and of course will be praying for the upcoming conclave!
What are you doing for Lent?
*I did cut out foods that I particularly like, and made sure that I only ate when I needed to and had small servings of nutrient-dense foods.