Alternative Lenten Disciplines (Not for Everyone)

Alternative Lenten Disciplines (Not for Everyone) March 2, 2017


We need to get creative about our Lenten disciplines. The annual giving-up-chocolate-for-Lent is a fairly hackneyed practice, and it’s hard to know just what it is meant to accomplish. I’ve given up Lenten practices that really don’t change the way I think or pray or see the world.

I just came from practicing the Lenten discipline I took up last year. Once again, it seems to be just the ticket for this year’s season. It’s not for everyone. It’s not a universal – like prayer, or acts of kindness – and it certainly doesn’t replace them. But may I suggest that, besides our serious efforts at self-denial and richer prayer, we should all consider some extra odd thing that pulls us out of our habits just enough to throw us off kilter?

Here’s why playing racquetball all by myself is an excellent Lenten discipline, for me. Okay, maybe this is a little tongue-in-cheek, but only a little.

  • It gets me moving. Not that I’m a couch-potato or anything, but there’s just something about wildly flailing myself around a large room with white walls, losing all inhibitions as I chase an apparently possessed ball around the room that is good for my soul. If there were such a thing as a split between the contemplative and the active spiritual lives (which there is not…but that is a subject for another essay), I would probably gravitate toward the contemplative. The very fact that adults spend at least 20 hours online every week (for young adults under 24, make that more than 27 hours weekly) means that our sedentary world is consuming us. Going forward our spiritual disciplines need to include more ways to unplug.
  • It hurts. Last year I made a heroic effort to reach a high ball and injured my back, sending me to the chiropractor with a badly pinched nerve. Suffering is a part of Lent, and hobbling around in pain was a constant reminder of how very small and weak I am. Full of sound and fury, yet one tweak of the hip and I’m out of business. Sounds like Jacob wrestling with the angel.
  • Playing by myself means there are no comparisons, and as Kierkegaard insisted, “All comparisons are evil.” Lent is the weirdest competitive sport… What are you giving up? Really? I’m giving up chocolate AND wine…and donuts.
  • Most importantly, I lose. You’d think, playing by myself, that whatever the score, I would be the winner. But I never am. If Lenten disciplines are about success, then I’ve been getting it wrong all these years. All we can bring to Our Lord is our repentance, not our victories. I really don’t even get any better, but Lent is not about progress or self-improvement either; it’s about self-examination and honestly. Lent is about moving more deeply into that place of recognition that our best efforts are really rather pint-sized after all. It isn’t the Pharisee who is justified in Jesus’ parable about prayer, but the tax collector who stands in the shadows and brings to God the simple fact that he is a sinner in need of mercy.

Lent is about deepening our love for God. That’s it. Maybe playing racquetball all by myself is nothing but one big exercise in humiliation. So be it. But even so, I offer it up, even if only to give God some comic relief. And I come back to face him, no better in the evening than I was in the morning. Yet, I try to emulate Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote: “As I look at myself, and examine myself, and pass judgment upon myself, I become one big troublesome and vexing question…. Then, forgetting all about my own poverty and insignificance, my whole being may be able to stand up, to run into Your embrace of love, and see You whom I love, and love You whom I have yet to see.”



Photo by Stephen Rahn, Flickr C.C.

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