I was going to start this post by saying, “We’re XX days into Lent, and I …” – but the fact that I didn’t have that number at the forefront of my brain meant I wasn’t counting the days until Easter.
And that, my friends, is what we call progress – in a spiritual-albeit-askew kind of way. By which, of course, I mean my relationship with Lent.
I often say, right around Shrove Tuesday, that Lent is hard on me, and then I explain it’s because I take it so seriously.
Which we’re supposed to do. Lent isn’t a fun exercise, like contemplating the start of the next season a la Groundhog Day or wearing spirituality colors like it’s St. Patrick’s Day.
I know all that. I know it’s serious, thoughtful, introspective. And yet, I used to do my “giving-up-for-Lent” exercise like I was in an endurance race. Some of the things I gave up over the years – chocolate, TV, eating out – were means of taking away things I enjoyed, but without any purpose or spiritual benefit.
Two years in a row I gave up chocolate, and you’d have thought I lost an eye or a leg. Both times the incessant whining almost did me in (not to mention everyone around me). The first year I made it all the way to Easter morning, at which point I gobbled down all the chocolate bunnies and eggs I could get my hands on. Despite that, I felt empty.
The next year, when I – at a Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner, of course – related the story from the previous year, someone told me that Sundays aren’t included in the Lenten fast. Whoa … fabulous news! Chocolate reprieve on Sundays – I’m in! Yet when I reached that Easter morning, I had the same empty feeling.
I realized I had been trying to ace an endurance test with God – one that I initiated – and the empty feeling was due to the futility of the exercise. God really isn’t interested in how well I can stay away from chocolate. Lesson learned.
After that, I began doing two-part Lenten disciplines: give up something physical and add something spiritual. So I talked the family into giving up our Friday night pizza take-out and instead make our own pizzas at home while watching a wholesome movie. Plus, whatever we would have spent on the pizza we donated to a food kitchen on Easter morning.
Those were nice things – family time, clean entertainment, giving to the food kitchen – but something still felt a bit off for me. I continued to approach Lent with a vague dread and had to muscle my way through it, determined to grin and bear until the bitter end.
I went on this way for years: Deep breath on Ash Wednesday, hold until I could exhale on Easter morning.
And then, a few years ago, I was inspired to write a guided journal for Lent. Initially I wrote it for myself, but after mentioning it to a few friends, I decided to put it up on Kindle and share it (I give it away free for the five days leading up to Ash Wednesday, and then it stays at .99). This year for the first time I offered it in paperback form (which unfortunately I cannot give away because there’s a cost with print production, and Amazon will not let me go in the hole even for a good cause).
The prompts deal with a variety of issues – physical, financial, vocational, social, spiritual – and the ways in which we can get lost in the distractions. The way I did for years when I got distracted by what I thought were the “must-do” disciplines during Lent. (I talked about the structure of it in more detail here.)
What this did for me – and I hope for the readers who use it – was to refocus what Lent means. Instead of running an endurance test, I no longer give anything up for Lent. I just write my way through the season using the writing prompts I created. This is the third year of this guided journal, and even though the prompts are the same, the journaling is different every year.
In this way, Lent has become more of a spiritual retreat where I spend time with God every day instead of staying rigid until the end. It’s the difference between pushing your way through a thick forest and walking a path that was already cut and paved for you. Same destination, a much easier journey.
The title of the journal – “Where is God in all this?” – is a kickstart to each day’s writing. Sometimes I even say it out loud. And God answers: “Here I am. Let’s talk.”