Despite living all of my 40 years on earth as a Catholic, I tend not to “give up” things for Lent.
You may have noticed that whenever I talk about what I “gave up” for Lent I always put “give up” in these cute little quotation marks like this: “give up “, see? That’s because my Lenten prayer is not just about a 40 day fast. At least not anymore. Sure, for years it was like that. I’d give up candy, or soda, or a favorite dessert for 40 days…or as long as I could stand…or until I forgot. But that’s not how I “do” Lent anymore.
Four years ago, I listened to my priest as he encouraged us to not just “give up” some THING for Lent, but to make it matter. He said that if we were going to “give up” something for Lent, the best thing to “give up” was our sins! Right then and there, my Lenten prayer changed from my telling myself what I would (try to) “give up” to my asking God what he would like to see changed in me. In that moment, Lent was changed forever from my “giving up” my favorite things, to my offering God my willingness to change. And what a difference it has made!
By that count, I can tell you what my last 4 Lents have involved “giving up”:
2011: Judgment and Jealousy
2012: Negative self-talk/image (i.e. Loving myself)
Looking at this list, you’d think I’d be just about near-perfect by now, wouldn’t you? (Ha!)
Of course, through this process, I quickly learned (SPOILER ALERT!) that “giving up” my sins really needed to be more than a 40 day undertaking.
Now, as a result, Lent is less about spending 40 days in the desert and more about beginning the process that every “12-stepper” already knows. It means admitting that I, myself, am powerless over the very things I attempt to “give up.”
That’s so much nearer the truth! I have no more power over my pride now that I did in 2010, no more power over my judgments and jealousy now that I did in 2011, no more power over my negative self-talk/image than I did in 2012, and no more power over my own excuses (for doing things I shouldn’t and not doing things I should) than I did when Lent began this year.
So, why bother then? you may be thinking. Great question! And the answer is this: because while I don’t have power, I DO have awareness.
Awareness of how I am weak. Awareness of how I am imperfect. Awareness of how I.am.not.God.
And, though it may not sound like it…that is Good News!
The even better news is that, for those who are able to take that “first step” and are fully honest with themselves about their powerlessness, there is a second step. And that step is that with my new (and usually painful) awareness: I came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. (Because, trust me, as soon as you get honest enough with yourself to see all that exists inside of you that you cannot control…you would quickly be headed for the loony bin, if it weren’t for this second step!) And that sanity comes for me in the form of compassion, which God readily puts on my heart, for those who “suffer” the same weakness.
The best way I can think of to describe this process of awareness and compassion is like a river gently washing away the roughest edges of a stone. Over time, as the “waters” of God’s mercy flow over me, I find myself, bit by bit, letting go. And then I take the next step. And then the next. And then the next. Until finally you can use your experience to help others in the best possible way: you can say, I understand what you’re going through. I struggle with it, too. I’m here for you.
That’s the best example I can find of what Lent is for me: a lifelong 12-step program whereby God shows me the places in my heart where I need to improve, and I do my best to follow. And, just like the washed-out drunk who has the courage to get real honest about their weakness with alcohol, I’ve come to understand that while my journey may begin by my “giving up” something, it’s a decision I have to continue to make day after day after day for the rest.of.my.life.
To be clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with fasting from, say, Diet Coke or M&M’s for 40 days to help yourself experience some of what Jesus suffered in the desert. I’m just saying that, to my understanding, it wasn’t just suffering for 40 days with no food and water that changed Jesus.
It was his choosing not to succumb to his temptations.
And doing that didn’t just change him for 40 days.
It changed him forever.