Lent starts now

March 5, 2008

The other day I was reflecting upon this season of Lent, as it is only the third time I’ve observed traditional Catholic Lenten practices, and my first since becoming Catholic. I thought about how I find this to be a season with its own simple beauty, how I actually enjoy the opportunity to deny myself worldly comforts in order to focus solely on spiritual nourishment…For about twenty days. And then I’m over it.

I’ll give you an example from my weekly grocery store trip. I always go to the store hungry, and sharing a cookie with the kids while we shop is a little pleasure that I really enjoy. For some reason, every single time I have gone to the store during Lent I have forgotten about giving up wheat until I actually had a piece of the crunchy, sugar-crusted cookie in my hand. And each time, I had to make a painful choice. Here’s a comparison of my thought process at the beginning of Lent, and then yesterday:

February 12: Mmmmm, this cookie looks delicious! Oh, wait, I gave up wheat for Lent and this has flour in it. Well, as I watch the kids eat it the tiny amount of suffering I experience will be a great opportunity to meditate on Christ’s sufferings, not to mention the fact that I could use a little exercise in the willpower department. Indeed, what a wonderful opportunity we have in these sorts of sacrifices to keep the big picture in mind, to detach ourselves from the hollow pleasures of the world.

March 4: Mmmmm, this cookie looks delicious! Wait…oh no…is it STILL Lent?! You have got to be kidding me. Does this never end? I WANT THE HOLLOW PLEASURES OF THE WORLD BACK!

In other words, sometime around the half-way point of Lent, I stopped getting anything out of it. When Ash Wednesday first rolls around, fasting and penance actually sound good to me. First of all, change is always invigorating. It’s fun to enter a different season of the year, to break out of the routine and do something new. Also, I often feel mentally and physically bloated after the decadence of the Christmas season, and for selfish reasons alone I look forward to simplifying my eating habits and my life in general. After letting the pendulum swing too far in the direction of gluttony and indulgence during the holidays, it actually sounds refreshing to let the pendulum swing back the other way during Lent.

But then, a few weeks in, the Christmas season long forgotten, nothing about it sounds good for selfish reasons. Concepts like penance and detachment aren’t some new and different challenge, they no longer offer an energizing change of pace. I miss the things I’ve given up, and the rush that comes with doing something new no longer acts as a counterbalance to the discomfort that my little acts of penance cause me.

In some ways, I think of Lent as just now getting started.

Starting this week, I realized that I was at a crossroads: now that the newness of Lent had worn off, I could continue dragging my feet through the season to hold on by my fingernails until Easter when I could finally do the things I want to do again; or I could realize that it is only now that I have an opportunity to fully understand this season. Only now that my opportunities for selfishness are gone can this be a time of lasting conversion, of true detachment and repentance. I can muddle through the next couple of weeks, or I can stop turning away from the discomfort and push through it to see what I find on the other side.

This wouldn’t be something I know from personal experience, but I am guessing that when people find Lent to be a truly fruitful time that takes their relationship with God to the next level, it is in the second half of the season that the changes occur. For me, in terms of its potential as a time of deep conversion, Lent starts now.


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