It’s that time of year again. A few weeks ago streets and workplaces and classrooms were filled with people wearing black smudges on their foreheads. In less than a month, Easter baskets will be overflowing with sweets and treats and churches will resound with the joyful noise of the Forbidden A-word.*
Right now, right now, these middling days, are the Hard Part of Lent. It’s now, half way between the somber reception of ashes and the exultant partying of Easter that Lent seems eternal, difficult and boring.
In my life as a Catholic-of-varying-Catholicity-depending-on-the-year, I have given up a whole range of things. Here’s some of the most memorable:
(1) When I was 10 I gave up cookies; full disclosure: I was a fat kid and my Sunday school catechist shamed me in front of an entire class of middle schoolers for this one.
(2) One year in college, I gave up sarcasm. For the first 2 weeks every time I opened my mouth I had to close it again because I couldn’t think of anything non-sarcastic to say. That was a very quiet Lent for me.
(3) For 4 years running, I completely eliminated animal products (went vegan!) for the entirety of Lent, a practice I convinced my boyfriend-eventual-husband to partake in with me.
(4) Once, I gave up voicing aloud worries about the future. It’s important to note I didn’t give up worrying—that would have been next to impossible, just allowing the worries to come out of my mouth.
Now, generally I don’t share what I gave up for Lent with other people; my undergrad was attached to a seminary and the seminary rector taught that comparing Lenten promises (i.e., “I gave up…X”) often becomes a form of spiritual pride. Back when I was giving up animal products and sarcasm, spiritual pride was definitely a serious temptation for me.
You see, giving up something for Lent is supposed to help make you a better person. In my examples above, #2 definitely made me a better person: practicing to keep my biting comments to myself for a whole 40 days helped me think and act more kindly. #3 reduced my carbon footprint and helped discipline my entire life through ascetic awareness. I chose #4 in a year when I was particularly given to obsessing about things that I could not control; by intentionally avoiding voicing my worries, that Lenten promise helped me to worry less.
#1 did not make me a better person, and sharing the choice with others did not lead to spiritual pride. Generally, I’ve found, food-related Lenten promises do little to improve my character.
So what did I give up this year? What little piece of my personality is being made more God-like through an ascetic practice? How am I becoming a better person?
This year I gave up chocolate.
Me and probably a million other people.
I share this with you, Internet People, not to brag, but to humbly and publicly admit that I can’t. At this point in my life I do not have the spiritual fortitude to really consistently work on one of my more serious sins for the duration of Lent. So instead, I give up chocolate, one of my favorite little luxuries which is entirely unnecessary and yet I sometimes find myself need/wanting.
And you know what? Now, half way through Lent, is the time when it’s hardest to say “no” to the mini Reese Peanut Butter Cup that’s been floating around my purse since before Ash Wednesday. During this middle-time of Lent it is so tempting to think “oh, one little transgression won’t hurt” but Lenten promises are not like New Years resolutions. It is not “okay” to abandon them after a good effort just because it’s hard or you keep making mistakes.
Lent is about training yourself to do God’s will, whether that training takes the form of curbing your sarcasm or denying yourself some creature-comfort. That training continues even when you mess up. Every day, every hour, every 15 minutes is a new opportunity to say, “Yes Lord, I do this for you.” At the end of 40 days, hopefully you (and I) will have learned to do God’s will a little more promptly than we did on Fat Tuesday.