Growing up, Lent was normally about punishment and deprivation for me.
As a child this meant feeling extra bad when I was mean to my brother during those 40 days, and knowing I could have helped more around the house. But as I got older, Lenten deprivation seemed to increasingly revolve around my appearance rather than my spirituality or the way I treat others. Giving something up for Lent seemed to be heavily influenced by diet-culture and fatphobia, and was wrought with guilt and shame.
Because Lent is a time for repentance — a time to thoroughly examine our lives and turn away from harmful habits — it’s easy to think that our Lenten observance is about punishment. It’s more helpful to think about this as a season for course-correction, a time of preparation and restoration. Discipline is a key tool for us to use in this season — which is why we’re invited to take on fasting — but it’s actually a practice that should open us up to others more, rather than increase our self-absorption.
Lenten fasting is intended to reorder our desires, to illuminate what’s important and what’s extra and what might be getting in the way. It’s a way to fight selfishness and be in solidarity with those who suffer. Fasting is detrimental, however, if it’s rooted in fatphobia — such as cutting out carbs or sugar to change the way we look. It’s all too easy to see it as a holy form of constant punishment.
What helped me think about Lent in a healthy way was sinking into the belief that we have always been fully loved by God — and then finding practices that increase my capacity to receive and respond to that love. We do not have to do or prove anything to be worthy of God’s boundless love. If you’re looking for principles for a Lenten observance that is not rooted in fatphobia, diet culture, punishment, or shame, I’ve come up with a few rules for myself that you might like, too.
1. Only act out of self-love, never out of self-hate.
Again, Lent is not a convenient, holy time to punish yourself — you actually don’t have to punish yourself at all. This is especially true for Lenten resolutions. This is not the time to finally stick to a workout regimen because we are unhappy with our bodies.
This punishment-based resolution is not bringing us closer to God, is not preparing us for Easter, and is rooted in self-hate. Instead, what if we viewed movement as an opportunity to find joy or embodied recollection? For Lent this year, thank your divinely created body for all that it can do, and honor it through only engaging in movement that you enjoy. This could mean a gentle yoga class, rollerblading along the lake, or biking with friends. The beautiful thing is that by honoring your body, you are honoring God.
2. View meals as a sacrament.
So many negative ideologies we are taught about Lent and deprivation revolve specifically around food. While fasting is an important Lenten discipline, it’s very easy to veer into an unhealthy approach to it — both physically and spiritually. In a society and culture that values thinness above all, it can be difficult to accept that we do not need to eat or weigh less during Lent in order to prove our worth to God.
If it’s a challenge for you to find balance in fasting from food, you can always fast from something else: Netflix, coffee, swearing, etc. You might also think about an approach to food that does not center on restrictive behaviors: sharing meals as an opportunity for fellowship and communion.
I learned this approach during my time at a Benedictine college, where the monks living on campus taught us how sacred it is to share food with others. The traditions they hold within the monastery seeped into student life, and some of my most treasured moments were spent around the table with friends. Now I try to view every meal this way.
So if your relationship with food is a challenge, instead of giving up a certain food or food group, consider an intentional approach to every meal as an opportunity for encounter. I promise that by the end, you will see meals as a form of sacred prayer.
3. Consider a focus on adding positive habits instead of unlearning negative habits
I spent years trying to unlearn toxic messages I’d internalized around shame and guilt. Many of these messages were connected to Lent and rooted in fatphobia and toxic diet culture, but there were others, too. Another unhelpful message I had internalized is that highest forms of holiness only exist within the walls of a Catholic church.
One day, my therapist suggested that instead of taking away a negative message, I could focus on adding a positive and redemptive message. So, instead of trying to undo the thought that holiness only exists inside a church, I started telling myself that holiness can be found in all places. This simple mindset shift has done wonders for my spirituality, and now I see God everywhere.
If you have struggled with guilt and shame during Lent and have tried to unlearn harmful messages, think of a positive message you can lean into this Lent. Instead of thinking about taking things away in your Lenten practice, what can you proactively take on? Time for reflection, weekly service, writing letters — there are lots of options.
Ultimately, Lent should be a time in which we can deepen our connection to God and prepare for the most important feast of the year — Easter. This is a time for transformation, but not the kind that we see on makeover TV shows. It’s a time to transform our interior lives, and the factor animating us (literally) in this season and every moment of our lives is God’s love. The more we can embrace and respond to that love, the more joy we will find in our Easter feast.