The discipline of sacrifice (or why I like to give stuff up for Lent)Posted: April 10, 2011
About 10 years ago I started observing Lent. I am not Catholic and was certainly wasn’t raised with the tradition. Perhaps it is no accident that I took up running somewhere along the same time, but I can’t really say why I took up Lent other than that it seemed like a good idea at the time. Like running, once I started, it became a part of me and something I look forward to. In fact, the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter is my favorite time in the liturgical year. Some folks choose to take on a discipline during Lent and it seems a lot of protestants are uncomfortable with the notion giving things up (or maybe it is our American consumer-based sensibilities that are conflicted?). I, for one, always choose to give up something. Usually sometime in January, sometimes earlier, it just comes to me what I need to give up that particular year. One time it was cheese and chocolate, one year it was pasta, another time alcohol, and this year it was going out to restaurants. My dear friend Cynthia railed a bit on those folks who choose to use Lent as some kind of excuse to go on a diet or get in shape – kind of a second chance window for New Year’s resolutions gone awry. It has never been about that for me. I give up things that have become distractions, but that are ultimately still pleasures I don’t want to remove altogether (the thought of a life with no cheese and no chocolate barely seems worth living…). For me an important element of the sacrifice, of wandering through my own wilderness, is knowing that there is an end. The sun will come out again, the Son of Man will rise again, balance will be restored.
Lent follows the same cycle for me each year. In the beginning I am energized and actually excited to get started. This year I pulled out cook books and made meal plans and thought about how healthy it was to be eating home cooked meals. There were some twinges as I had to reschedule a lunch date with a friend, but I figured I would just invite people over and visions of all the dinner parties I would host danced in my head. The middle bit is where it starts to be a burden. It’s not horrible, but the novelty has worn off and I am honestly mostly just going through the motions. This is the part where I realize there will be no dinner parties and I remember the reason I wasn’t pouring over cook books and making meal plans before – I’m not really that interested in cooking. But I keep plugging away for reasons unknown or maybe simply because I am just too stubborn to give up and quit. Towards the end of Lent, or rather when the end is in sight, I begin to cherish whatever it was I gave up. I close my eyes and the vision now is filled with good friends around the table of a fine restaurant enjoying each other and the meal before us. It is both harder and more satisfying. This is also usually when the temptations become the strongest. A colleague Russell wanted to convert our weekly meeting to a working lunch. He offered to pay and suggested since we would be talking business that it wouldn’t count as going out for ‘fun.’ My friend Francis tried to give me a coupon for a free pizza and argued that since we could get the pizza and eat it at home that wasn’t technically “going out to eat.” The temptation here was not the offer of lunch or pizza, but rather the guilt I felt for inconveniencing someone else who wanted to go out and turning down a generous offer. Why should others have to be bothered by the choices I made, but in both cases I declined and simply sat with the guilt and disappointment.
We have all faced times of darkness and wilderness in our lives. Giving up Pizza Hut for 40 days hardly compares to the pain and loss anyone who has been on this planet for any length of time inevitably experiences, my own pain included. But observing Lent reminds me that we can persevere in the darkness, and that the light does come back. I can’t speak for the spiritual journey of those who choose to take on a new discipline, or for those who don’t observe at all, as I believe we all have our own paths to follow. But for me the beauty of the season is directly linked to the sacrifice of wandering in the wilderness – as if being lost is part of the journey of finding my way again.