40 Days To A New You: Why Lent Is More Than Just The Oldest Self-Help Tool

via Unsplash - Sunset Girl
via Unsplash – Sunset Girl

In the spirit of Catholicism, let me make a confession.

I’ve never given up anything for Lent.


When I was seven, the girls down the street asked me “What are you giving up for Lent?” I looked at them like they just asked me whether Roger Waters or David Gilmour did more to cement Pink Floyd’s status as rock legend, or whether there were any legit Triple Crown threats in that year’s crop of Derby hopefuls.

In other words, I had no idea what they were talking about.

I’ve never been religious. As a child, I got up to speed on Christian mythology from Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and 70s horror flicks. Sabbath is British metal; Jesus is a bowler not to be, umm, messed with; and, most condemningly, I’m guilty of the phrase Christian mythology.

But, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. I’m not averse to the idea of religion: I’ve attended all manner of religious services – Mormon, Hindu, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, even Wiccan. And, at marathon start lines, I may feel flickers of belief. To learn more about this tradition, I asked a friendly neighborhood Catholic what I was missing, and what I could gain through Lenten observance. “Lent isn’t a self-betterment routine,” she said. “It’s about sacrifice.”

Christian scholars date the 40-day fasting ritual, which mirrors Jesus’ own 40-day fast as described in the Book of Matthew, back to 325 A.D. But how do modern observers treat Lent? Some churches, to show solidarity with their LGBTQ parishioners, are administering ashes this year with a glint of glitter – a laudable Love thy neighbor gesture, but what of sacrifice?
Here’s a short list of what people are sacrificing in 2017, as judged by online and real-life conversations:

  • Social media
  • Video games
  • Fast food
  • Online dating
  • Starbucks
  • Complex carbs
  • Alcohol (or, as my old boss chose to play it, “my third gin and tonic of the day”)
  • Smoking
  • Impulse buys
  • Swear words
  • Chocolate, candy, cheese, or other indulgences
  • Television
  • Wearing makeup
  • Eating out for lunch
  • Posting on Reddit or other online forums
  • Masturbating (I can’t make this stuff up)

To a nonreligious eye, Lent reads like a 40-day detox more than sacrifice or penance. A reboot of our New Year’s resolutions. A test of our willpower or goalsetting abilities. A self-discovery adventure. We avoid social media to gain mindfulness, we walk past that sample sale to keep more money in our pockets. To get beach-ready, we put down that cupcake.

While all the above (as with many things) can be framed prayerfully and with sacrificial intent, I don’t see Lent observers saying things like I will spend less time with my husband or I will give up my morning workouts or I will stop brushing my teeth or I will cheer for the Cleveland Browns. We observe Lent not by self-flagellating, but by using spiritually-inspired abstinence to enrich our lives. Is this off-base?

Catholic nun Sister Joan Chittister thinks not. “If penance is all that Lent is about,” she argues, “the season, if not almost useless, is at least somewhat trivial.” Lent, to Chittister, is not 40 days of atonement as much as it is a call to “open ourselves up to life.”

In the spirit of opening up to life, maybe now is the time to start a regular meditation practice, get up an hour early to work on a passion project, or take some time out of the weekend for volunteer work or reconnection with family and loved ones.

Maybe Lent isn’t about giving up, but just giving. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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