I remember Lent as a kid. It was the longest stretch of time next to the day before Christmas. Although unlike Advent, Lent was chock full of not-eating and not-drinking, not-watching tv and not-doing most things I enjoyed. Whatever I liked, Lent took away from me. It was the have-not stint of any given year for my family and for me, it became a time of self deprecation (not in a good way). Even as a small child I remember clapping my hands over my mouth after accidentally eating the forbidden morsel of chocolate and berating myself for it. I was pretty rough on myself back then, and that continued for quite some time.
A few years ago I began to stray from the same-old-same-old chocolate/television fast and get creative with my Lenten sacrifices. One year I challenged myself with getting up the minute my alarm went off. Of course, to be certain I carried a sufficiently heavy cross I had to make all sorts of stipulations around the sacrifice like:
- I had to sit up the second my alarm went off and put my feet on the floor
- I couldn’t lay back down
- I couldn’t shut the alarm off until after I’d eaten breakfast
I hated that Lent, but come hell or high water I was going to GET HOLY. Each subsequent year since then Lent has brought some other laundry list of commands. No, no, no. Rules, rules, rules. Because isn’t that what being Catholic during the Purple Season is all about? Giving up everything you really like because Jesus said so?
Sure it is…if you think that love will violently spring out of banging someone on the head hard enough. I look back at my journal and see that there was a lot of head-banging going on – up until two years ago when my Lenten journal entry began with a quote by the English mystic, Caryll Houselander:
“…Each one of us – as we are at the moment when we ask ourselves – For what purpose do I exist? – is the material which Christ Himself has fashioned for His purpose. Each one can, when he has cleared out the rubble look honestly at the material from which he is made, and ask the Holy Spirit to let it show him the way Christ wills to show Himself in his life.”
What a difference from the hardness present in all my previous Lenten entries. I felt as if the Lord was asking me to stop frantically doing things and just be. So two years ago for Lent, I gave up nothing. Absolutely nothing. And it was the hardest thing I ever did – or did not do, as the case may be. I was working so hard to change myself, to get myself to heaven on my own steam, that I forgot it is God who works in the spirit and soul of each person. And it’s God who offers depth and light during Lent. We can only receive it.
Because if, as Caryll Houselander says, each one of us removes the unnecessary trifles and asks the Holy Spirit in what way Christ wills to show Himself in our lives, then it is Christ’s decision, not ours, to advance our spiritual lives in one way or another – and that includes tackling sins and failings. This doesn’t give us license to run around sinning it up – not at all. We have a part to play in getting to heaven; we just don’t have THE part. We’re the sideshow, the co-pilot, the supporting actor. And for me, this thought brought a whole new perspective not only to my Lenten observances, but in fact, to my spiritual life in general.
Despite the change in outlook, doing nothing “concrete” for that six weeks was hard for me. It was more difficult than anything else I’d given up or taken on, because for once I had to allow Jesus the space and silence to help me deal with a few big issues cluttering up my heart and mind. For me, taking on some random and thoughtless Lenten penance was just a smoke screen – something I put up every year to keep myself busy and feeling holy – and something I used to avoid acknowledging the internal mess I knew was there but didn’t want to deal with. It wasn’t easy to be honest with myself, but in the end, it was certainly worth it, helping me to be a calmer person and much more kind, especially to myself.
So what’s on the agenda for Lent this year? Well, I’m not doing nothing, but neither am I doing something terribly taxing. (Not that taxing is always bad. Sometimes it’s exactly what we need, but it’s not what I need at this moment in my life.) I have a few ideas, but to be honest I’m still not quite sure. I am open to what the Lord wishes for me and I am confident that he will give me the Lent he wants me to have. He always does and I’m glad for it. Because in the end it’s He, not me, who is getting this gal to heaven, and all I need to do is try hard not to mess his plan up.
I wish you all a quiet, simple and blessedly holy Lent.
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