I remember Lent as a kid. It was basically the longest stretch of time EVER, next to Advent of course. Unlike Advent, Lent was chock full of not eating what I wanted, not drinking what I wanted, not watching TV and not doing most things I enjoyed. Whatever I liked, Lent took away from me. It was the have-not stint of any given year. Even as a small child I remember clapping my hands over my mouth after consuming the accidental-yet-still-forbidden bit of chocolate and all but flogging myself in the corner wearing the dunce cap. I’ve come a long way since then. Or have I?
A few years back I began to stray from the chocolate/television/alcoholic beverage same old same old and get creative with my Lenten sacrifices. One year I challenged myself with practically flying out of bed the minute my alarm went off. Of course, to be certain I carried a sufficiently heavy cross I had to make all sorts of stipulations around the sacrifice like: 1) I had to sit up the second my alarm went off and put my feet on the floor, 2) I couldn’t lay back down, and 3) I couldn’t shut the alarm off until after I’d eaten breakfast—the list went on. I hated that Lent, but come hell or high water I was going to GET HOLY. After that, each year brought some other laundry list of commands when Lent rolled around. No, No, No. Rules, rules, rules. Because isn’t that what being Catholic during the Purple Season is all about? Giving up everything you really like because Jesus said so?
Sure it is…if you think that love will violently spring out of banging someone on the head long and hard enough. I look back at my journal and see that there was a lot of head banging going on—that is, up until last March when my Lenten entry begins with a quote by Caryll Houselander:
It is the purpose for which something is made that decides the material which is used. … Each one of us—as we are at the moment when we ask ourselves—For what purpose do I exist?—is the material which Christ Himself has fashioned for His purpose. Each one can, when he has cleared out the rubble, look honestly at the material from which he is made, and ask the Holy Spirit to let it show him the way Christ wills to show Himself in his life.
What a difference from the hardness present in all my previous Lenten entries! The Lord had finally gotten through to me: stop frantically doing things and just be. Do you know what I did for Lent last year? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. And it was the hardest thing to do—or not do as the case may be—because for one, I could easily see that I had a TON of sins, failings, and deficiencies to work on. And I wanted to work on them badly, to force myself to change them all. But up until last year, my thirty-fourth year of life, I was working so hard to change myself without God’s help, to get myself to heaven on my own steam, it was like I was emptying the ocean with a teaspoon—almost completely wasting time and energy and missing out on the spiritual depth that Lent can offer.
Because if, as Caryll Houselander says, each one of us removes the unnecessary trifles and asks the Holy Spirit in what way Christ wills to show Himself in our lives, then it is Christ’s decision, not ours, to advance our spiritual lives in one way or another. And that includes tackling sins and failings—again, totally Christ’s decision. This doesn’t give us license to run around sinning because we don’t have to do anything and have a “why bother, God does everything” attitude. Not at all. We have a part to play in getting to heaven; we just don’t have THE part. We’re the sideshow, the co-pilot, the supporting actor. And for me, this thought put a whole new perspective not only on my Lenten observances but on my spiritual life in general.
Despite that change in outlook, to do nothing “concrete” for that six weeks was still hard. It was more difficult for me than anything else I’d given up or taken on because for once I had to allow Jesus the space and silence to fill up the emptiness created by discarding that clutter inside my heart and mind. For me, giving up or taking on something random and thoughtless was just a smoke screen—something I put up every year to keep myself busy and feeling holy—and something I used to avoid the internal ugliness I knew was there but didn’t want God to see, ugliness that God can make beautiful only if, paradoxically, you let him see it. It wasn’t easy, but it was so rewarding.
So what, you might ask, am I doing this Lent? Well, I’m not doing nothing again, but neither am I doing something terribly taxing—not that taxing is always bad. Sometimes it’s exactly what we need, but it’s not what I need at this moment in my life. After a good deal of prayer, this year I will continue the theme of discarding the trifling unnecessary things in my life by discarding the trifling unnecessary things in my home. I’m sort of looking forward to going through my belongings and keeping only the essentials—and years ago that would have begged the question, “If I’m going to enjoy it, is it really a sacrifice? Will it really make me holy?”
But I know a little better now. The better question is, “If it’s the Lord’s Will for me to work on this thing in this moment, will doing that get me to heaven?” I’m thinking the answer is a resounding yes.