As a season, Lent is one of the most beautiful of the liturgical year to me. A time of voluntary simplicity and spiritual purification, it is all about fragile new growth of the soul, as a plant reaches up from the ground in the spring, which indeed is what the word lent means. It is the springtime of the soul.
An old custom that many, even outside of the church, still practice is “giving up [something] for Lent.” Usually it’s an item considered to be a luxury or decadent pleasure, or something unhealthy for us anyways. So we give up drinking coffee for the six weeks of the season, or chocolate, or all things sweetened with sugar. This is as far as most of us moderns go in fulfilling the ancient practice of fasting in penitential seasons.
In times gone by people were much more dramatic with their fasts, either going without solid food altogether for forty days or reducing their dietary intake to some bare minimum like one meal of lentils per day. Time that would have been spent in meal preparation and consumption would instead be spent in prayer.
The virtue of such a lenten practice of abstinence, whether it be from just chocolate or from solid food altogether, is that it helps purify the body in some degree. And the physical purification symbolizes and helps us with the spiritual purification of giving up vices of many kinds. By fasting from daily bread we remember that God’s word alone is our truest sustenance.
On the other hand, abstinence-based practices sometimes mislead us into the unhelpful thinking that the body is bad, along with all the things of this world. Indeed, fasting historically was part of a group of disciplines intended to help with the “mortification of the flesh” – the denial and choking out of all things physical and “evil.” This kind of theology is profoundly out of step with the biblical view of the body and the world as intrinsically good and loved always by God.
An alternative to abstinence from something in Lent is to take on a practice that nevertheless leads us into a spiritual purification and simplicity of life.
This year for Lent, why not spend time asking yourself, What it is that gives you life, joy, and energy? What fills you with a sense of consolation and deep peace? When, through prayer or meditation or simple gut response, you have answered that question, perhaps you could commit to having more of that in your life. Maybe it’s more time with family, maybe it’s more time to yourself. It could be more connection with nature, or it could be paying more attention to one dimension of your work. Spending time in ways that give us life, joy, and energy could involve a pruning back of those commitments that have become draining to us – a form of lenten fasting.
Life is busy and full of pressures, and it is not always easy for us to discern what truly gives us joy in our own lives. A practice that can help is to ask oneself at the end of each day: For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful? To ask this question daily can gradually lead us into deeper awareness of ourselves and greater freedom to choose the life that God is wanting to lead us into. Because God’s will for us is always abundant life.
The season of Lent is a time for us to enter into more and more abundance of life, not as the world understands this as excess of everything, but as God sees it: fulfillment of our purpose to love one another and God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies.
Blessings in your Lenten journey this year.