There is a word for how well I usually stick to my spiritual commitments each Lent, and that word is meh.
I do not have an ample reserve of willpower. As a kid, I might give up chocolate for Lent, eat a peanut butter cup the Friday after Ash Wednesday, and, welp, that would be the end of that until next year. I wanted to do better, but the Lenten fast — the practice of giving stuff up — felt pretty pressure-packed, demanding perfect self-denial for 40 whole days. It was easier to cut and run.
A big part of my problem is that it is not always clear to me what Lenten fasting is for, exactly. It can feel like a diet or a self-help regimen, and I know that’s not quite it. (This intermittent fasting diet I’m experimenting with, for instance, doesn’t feel spiritual at all. It mostly feels hangry.) Lenten fasting is supposed to be about growing in my relationships with God and with other people. The key is to find some ways that my giving stuff up helps me to be a better person.
Pope Francis has some practical wisdom on this question, as he so often does. “Does my fast help others?” he asked Mass-goers during a homily last Lent. “If it does not, it’s fake, it’s inconsistent, and it takes you on the path to a double life.” Fasting also requires lowering one’s self and asking for forgiveness from the Lord in prayer, he said.
In that particular homily, Pope Francis was reflecting on a passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which was originally addressed to a Jewish community that had strayed from following God’s commands. They were nominally fasting, but they were oppressing poor people and fighting with each other. You are missing the point, Isaiah says. Instead, try this:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (58:6-7)
If I eat less bread, in other words, I have more to give to those who are hungry. If I spend time with God in prayer, reflecting on His special love for those who don’t have enough to live good lives, I might feel the urgency to share more deeply. In his brief remarks, Pope Francis hit on the Catholic Church’s three traditional Lenten practices, which, in addition to fasting, include prayer and almsgiving (material support for those living on the margins). Fasting finds its meaning only if it’s connected to the other two practices.
The Church certainly makes good sense lifting up these three disciplines, but after I learned that there were actually three things I was supposed to be doing in Lent instead of just one, I saw a potential trap right away: Three Lenten practices is way more than one Lenten practice. If giving up chocolate without praying or supporting the marginalized was more than I could reliably handle over 40 days, what was I supposed to do with three obligations?
A few years of pondering has left me with one idea: I think the key is to hook ’em together.
Say I decide to give up pizza for Lent, plus pray for 20 minutes a day, and donate some money and volunteer at a local homeless shelter. Three worthwhile things to do. But they’re totally disconnected from each other. There’s no unifying principle. It’s the spiritual equivalent of juggling three torches — tricky to keep it going for long.
When I tried hooking my Lenten practices together for the first time, I noticed I was spending way too much money on purchasing iTunes albums. Plus books and DVDs and magazines. (I’m a media horder, essentially.) So I decided to fast from buying those things. I thought about people who don’t have the easy access to media that I take for granted, especially young kids whose families might not have the sort of disposable income my family had.
So I decided to spend my Lent praying for those kids. To keep it specific, I prayed for children in a few different school communities in lower-income areas that I knew about from teacher friends. Finally, I picked one of the schools whose mission was particularly close to my heart and donated to them about as much as I figured I had saved by fasting from media purchasing during Lent.
It wasn’t revolutionary, but it felt integrated, whole, and worthwhile. Plus, it wasn’t overwhelmingly hard. In fact, it felt easier than other years’ attempts — the unity helped each of the practices support the other two. I actually stuck with it until the end.
And there were some definite spiritual fruits that year as I prepared for Easter. Simplicity cut down on the “stuff” in my life and left more room for God. I grew in an intentional awareness of the brokenness of the world, where some have too much and others have not nearly enough. And because I relied on it, I remembered in a tangible way that only the love of Jesus that conquers death can heal us.
So my challenge to you is to think about doing something new this Lent — not necessarily more, but more integrated. Maybe start with the fasting element and connect it to the other two practices. Or pick a social injustice that tears at your heart and wrap your prayer, fasting, and almsgiving around it.
For me, at least, this interconnection makes so much more sense than giving up candy without knowing why.