Four Things to Consider Giving Up for Lent This Year

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the beginning of the Lenten season of prayer and fasting prior to Easter.  For us Catholics, it’s a day that usually involves our non-Catholic friends and acquaintances reminding us that we have “dirt” on our foreheads.  And it’s also a day on which many of us choose something to ceremonially give up for the next forty days.

In my Catholic elementary, middle, and high school years, I’d trade stories of my Lenten sacrifice with my friends during lunch hour.  Together, we’d compare them like battle scars to see whose commitment was the “worst,” or most difficult to keep, as though it were a competition and the most dedicated Catholic were measured by the most laborious sacrifice.  Chocolate usually emerged as the clear winner, but since that was something I personally didn’t wish to give up, I usually left these conversations feeling like I wasn’t doing enough to wrangle all of Lent’s transformative and preparatory power.

And I think I was onto something.  I was missing the point.  I think my dissatisfaction stemmed from a place of knowing that I wasn’t really making the right sacrifices, that Lent was about more than abstaining from something material for forty days that wasn’t going to contribute much, if anything, to my spiritual growth, anyway.  Sacrifice is still important, but similar to the way that the empty calories of most food-related Lenten fasts don’t satisfy a person to begin with, giving them up for the season clearly wasn’t doing the trick for me, either.

It wasn’t until my college years at USD that I really began to seek a more mature understanding of this season, and started to see it as a tremendous opportunity for growth, rather than a drudgery to merely be endured while I waited for the Easter celebration.        

I’ll admit that Ash Wednesday has always seemed melancholy to me.  “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return”?  Not exactly encouraging words.  

But then I started to think that perhaps Ash Wednesday, in reminding us that we’re mortal beings, is really meant to unite us to Jesus’ own suffering and death mirrored by the Lenten season.  We’re not really supposed to physically die during this period, of course, and we’re not supposed to get pessimistic about our inevitable fate, either, but we are, I think, called to metaphorically die to those parts of ourselves that are no longer live-giving.  To rise anew, on Easter, as the best versions of ourselves that we could possibly be, as people committed to spreading God’s light and love with the world around us.        

To do that, we have to be willing to give up some things.  Some really challenging things that delve deeper than promises to forsake a certain type of food or soft drink or dessert or candy for forty days.  Some things that keep us stagnant on this journey of life.

I want to be careful here to not fall into the same trap I sometimes create for myself with New Year’s Resolutions, which is to say that I want to somehow, suddenly, become a perfect person in the next 40-plus days.  I know that’s not possible.  But no matter where I am on Easter, if I choose to walk through the next forty days with intention, I know I’ll be better than I was when I started.  And that is what I want the Lenten journey to be about for me.  I want it to involve transformation.  I want it to make me new.  

So below, I propose four things to give up for Lent this year that have nothing to do with physical abstention, and everything to do with becoming more fully the person I believe God calls me to be:  

This isn’t the first Lente I’ve said I’ll give these up, and previously, I’ll admit I haven’t experienced much success with this declaration.  Complaining is such a natural, knee-jerk reaction when things aren’t going my way, and for some reason, it always feels so much easier to complain about something when asked how my day is going, than to acknowledge the best or funniest or most interesting part of it.  Not to mention, social media these days is absolutely flooded with complaints: about presidential candidates, about politics, about entertainment and media, about sports, about the weather, about studying, about work… you get the idea.  I don’t know how or why this came to be the societal norm, but it seems to be easier to contribute to it than to be the voice that says, “You know what?  My day is actually going pretty well.  I’m alive.  I’m healthy.  I ate a delicious breakfast and got to play with my dog before going to work, where I was able to make a positive difference, even if just a small one, in another’s life.”  Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, refers to this phenomenon by noting that “it is easy to be heavy, difficult to be light.”  This Lent, I want to be a little more light, and in so doing, bring a little more light into the world.  And exercising gratitude is such a simple way of giving thanks and praise to God for our abundant blessings.

“There are deeds you alone must do.  There are words only you can say.  Trust in Me and do not tremble, for I go with you to show you the way.”  
— Bob Hurd, “Come Unto Me”

I remember sitting in my dorm room after one of my creative writing courses last year, feeling downtrodden because I was convinced that everyone else in the class was a better writer than me.  Their graceful prose, their natural dialogue and character development… I envied them, and felt I couldn’t compare.  Even though I knew, because it had been drilled into me pretty much since birth, that each of us is blessed with different gifts, I think at the time it was something I knew without really knowing (if that even makes sense?), because in that moment of weakness it felt that everyone else’s gifts, while different, were also far superior to mine.  

And then I heard the song I quoted above begin to stream through the speakers on my computer.  About twenty or so years ago, my mom recorded herself singing several Mass songs, and when I was little, I used to play them while I fell asleep at night.  Now I have them on my computer, and while I’m sure it was partly her voice singing to me then that comforted me (since moms always have a way of soothing their distressed children), these words hit me in a profoundly new way that night.  

There are deeds you alone must do.  There are words only you can say.”

Whoa.  Life isn’t about comparing to anyone else, though in the age of social media, I understand it's difficult to avoid doing so.  Life is really about shining your little light as brightly as possible on the rest of the world.  After all, if you don’t perform the deeds you must do, or say the words only you can say… then who will?  The wonderful corollary to this is that you can also assume that wherever you are right now is wherever you need to be to carry out the mission you’ve been entrusted.  And you are the only one who can do it, the only one who can live and love as only you can.  Pretty groundbreaking stuff, if you ask me.  

Trust in the beauty of your own life’s story, and recognize how truly awesome it is that you are the only you that is, has been, or ever will be.  Making good use of that realization is an excellent way to thank God for this gift of life, after all.    

So march forth, and do your thing.  Celebrate the gifts you’ve been given.   

I want to find ways to get more uncomfortable this Lent.  And I’m not referring to physical discomfort.  What I mean is that I want to disturb my comfort zone a little bit more for the sake of making this world a better place.  
  • When I drive past the grizzled homeless person standing on the road median, holding up a cardboard sign pleading for help, instead of double-checking that my car doors are locked, I want the courage to roll down my window and hand him the granola bar in my purse.  
  • When I’m struggling to find ways to be productive on one of my haphazard days off, I want the courage to serve a meal at a soup kitchen, or to volunteer for a few hours at my local Catholic Charities.  
  • When I’d rather stay home yet another night because that’s what the introvert in me is drawn to, I want the courage to reach out and connect with new friends instead.  
  • When I’m already running late and I’m tempted to rush through my errands, I want the courage to engage in a short conversation with the person serving me, to take a few minutes to make feel him or her feel loved and special.  
  • When I’m nervous about applying or interviewing for a job, I want the courage to walk boldly in and do the thing that scares me anyway, to take more risks, knowing that God will be holding my hand every step of the way. 
  • When someone asks me to do a favor for them, I want the selflessness to say “yes,” even though it might be inconvenient for me, instead of the “no” that usually tempts me.
Basically, if something feels uncomfortable for me, but can offer comfort to another individual or improve the quality of my own life, I want to take steps toward doing those things that scare me.  I want the courage to pursue discomfort.  


This one’s especially difficult for me, because I’m a planner.  And I like to know how things are going to unfold.  All the time.  I’m slowly starting to realize, though, that one of the beautiful things about walking with God through this life is learning to trust Him.  Doing my best, trusting God with the rest.  Letting go and letting God.  I realize this is not a goal that will magically come to fruition in forty days, and I know better than to think I won’t worry about anything at all anymore come Easter.  This is a goal I will continue to pursue for the rest of my life, but I want to kickstart it this season.  This prayer by Thomas Merton, a favorite of mine, sums up the way I want to feel about uncertainty so beautifully, so I’ll leave it here to end this post:

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. 
I do not see the road ahead of me. 
I cannot know for certain where it will end. 
Nor do I really know myself, 
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
 does not mean that I am actually doing so. 
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. 
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. 
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. 
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, 
though I may know nothing about it. 
Therefore will I trust you always, 
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. 
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, 
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Are there any ways you, in particular, like to observe Lent?  Let me know in the comments!   I would love to hear from you.  :)

1 comment :

  1. Love this, Sarah! Such a true and meaningful approach to Lent as opposed to the cosmetic suffering that we tend to choose as a default. <3