Lenten disciplines draw on our weakness, not our strength

Lawrence OP / Flickr / Creative Common
Lawrence OP / Flickr / Creative Common

The most aggravating thing I’ve given up for Lent was jaywalking. I’m from New York, originally, and it’s habit to step into the road regardless of whether the light is green for me. Jaywalking was a good discipline for me because it’s clearly not a very big sacrifice. There’s no way for me to think of the practice as badass or a testament to my own strength.

In fact, as I watched the WALK sign tick down on the other street, it was a reminder of my own weakness, of how frustrated I get being thwarted for 20 or 15 seconds. (And the fact that I think of it as thwarting, not pausing, in the first place).

That’s part of why I enjoyed Catherine Addington’s essay on advice for fasting for people recovering from eating disorders so much.  The advice she gives is most acutely needed by those for whom food restrictions are dangerous, but her reasoning is excellent for everyone to read and imitate.

There is also the Orthodox tradition of fasting which is primarily of kind rather than quantity, i.e. going temporarily vegan with the guideline of simplifying food. I find the Orthodox practice of fasting to be so prudent and correct; it encourages us to let this particular sensory luxury occupy less space in our days, freeing up that space for God. I think Lent is particularly hard on Catholics in recovery because Lent has been sort of privatized into individual sacrifices of various levels of creativity (and therefore scrupulosity). For Orthodox, fasting is more of a communal practice where food is simplified in uniform, traditional ways and the time normally dedicated to that preparation is redirected to liturgy.

Lent is a time to make more space for God. We give things up (including good things) to weaken our own attachment to them and to give us a little more time, energy, and attention to give to God. For almost everyone, a fast that leaves you thinking constantly about the act of fasting (whether the difficulty or the logistics) is a counterproductive fast. We give things up so we can take on more of what God wants to give us.

This year, being married (and frequently walking in company) makes not jaywalking a little more complicated. But the one thing I know I’m doing is pretty simple: saying the rosary each day, outside. I work from home at my current job, so I don’t have a walk to work built into my day, and I want my Lenten discipline to interrupt my day and get me to pray outside (and have a wider range of things to thank God for than my living room).

I’d like to try (but haven’t quite set this up yet) keeping a hat of prayer intentions and then picking five at random before the rosary, so I can offer each decade for my intentions or for my friends. I think I’d enjoy being able to pray the mysteries by getting to think about what in them speaks to a randomly chosen prayer request.

I also really love this suggestion by Katie Warner for the 40 days of Lent:

During Lent, there is one spiritual activity that I look forward to most. Before Lent starts rosary in hand_red(though it’s never too late to begin), I get out my calendar and I write the name of one family member, friend, coworker, neighbor, acquaintance, or someone I’m not too fond of on one of the 40 days of Lent. When that day arrives, I offer my prayers and petitions, frustrations, joys, and sufferings for the person’s intentions.

It’s simple to add to your practice, if you like, and may make it easier to give something up for, and not just give things up.

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