I urged you all to read Melinda Selmys’s series on “making Lent hardcore,” but I hinted that I had various caveats or places where I wanted to stick my own oar in. You guys know that my whole shtik is that there’s no one best way, no Esperanto of the spiritual life. I lack self-restraint and temperance (if only there were a Christian practice that could train me in these virtues!) so I decided to give you all this Lenten feuilleton, an alphabet of ways you could think about Lent. You’re welcome and I’m sorry.
You’ll see that some of these overlap, English has a lot of letters you guys. You’ll also notice that some of these conflict. That is on purpose. I hope something in here is useful or resonant for you but if not, set it aside.
A is for Anticipation. Lent heightens our longing, our awareness of the not-yet. It’s a pilgrimage and a reminder of all the ways in which we’re strangers here. As you’re considering your Lenten practice you can consider what would make you strange to the world, what would help you long for Easter not just because you’ll get to eat chocolate (although see below) but because you will receive a foretaste of Heaven after focusing for a season on your estrangement and exile.
B is for Bridegroom. The One for Whom we long. What are your images of God and of Jesus? What is your Higher Power? How can you deepen your conscious contact, as they say, with Him? This may lead you to look at images you’ve neglected: Jesus the Friend, for example; God the Father of Mercies. Or it might lead you to plunge more deeply into the moments in the life of Jesus with which you already feel some strange kinship. The image of the Bridegroom should suggest a need in our souls for contemplation: We are the people who long to see Your face. Silence and solitude are good places for your soul to call out to her great Lover; so are places where you find it easy to be aware of the beauty of Creation. Beauty is often where we begin to trust that God is merciful.
C is for Church. Why not do stuff just because other Christians are doing it? Communal sacrifice and penance binds us together. There’s great humility in e.g. the Eastern practice of just giving up the same stuff everybody else does (modified according to one’s circumstances and ability, see below) and there are other ways to walk through Lent as a church as well. Here is a schedule of Lent at St Matthew’s Cathedral here in DC. Maybe don’t introspect or exercise too much your power of choice.
D is for Doable. Seriously, if your personality is such that you get in a cycle of grand ambitions followed by crushing disappointment–if you suspect “failing” at Lent will be discouraging for you rather than humbling–maybe strive for a doable Lent. Pick penitential practices for the person you actually are, not for the fantasy version you’d like to be. My spiritual director (maybe riffing on St Seraphim of Sarov? can’t remember) says, “Discouragement is always from the evil one.” Maybe think in terms of humility vs discouragement, and have a Lent in which the littleness of your plans is a reflection of honest humility.
E is for Efficiency. You guys know me so you know I have no interest in an efficient Lent but I do think there’s a sort of neat hook-and-eye harmony in those things where e.g. you give the money you save on sweets to Catholic Relief Services. I personally tend more toward just flinging money at random but if you were me you’d be writing this post instead of reading it, so clearly our paths are different.
F is for Freedom. Lots of Melinda’s series touched on this: learning detachment from what you think you can’t live without. “The biggest thing that you learn through radical renunciation is that you don’t need the things that you think you need,” as she says.
G is for Gratitude. Again, Melinda’s series hits this really well. What do I take for granted? How can I become grateful for it again? One thing I’ve been doing recently is re-reading the journal my first spiritual director made me keep. Reading the journal from when I was still drinking, and desperately trying to stop, made it much harder to take sobriety for granted.
H is for Habits. Lots of people do Lent this way: a chance to try out life without some habits and with new ones. This is where you do stuff you hope to keep doing after Easter. I think this is how I started reading and praying over the Mass readings every day–I think that started as a Lent thing, but I loved it and kept doing it.
I is for Impossible. Failing at Lent can be pretty humbling. Setting a bar high enough that you will find it exceptionally hard to reach may help you–if you are a certain kind of person–remember that your success in the moral life is not what secures God’s love for you.
J is for Jesus! Lent is a time set aside for all of us to be with Jesus in the desert. This may not suggest obvious practices to you but it might be a helpful corrective to the contemporary overthinking-it Catholic tendency to view Lent as a test-your-strength machine or personal improvement boot camp.
K is for Knowledge of Self. Examine your life and see where your habits (oversleeping, Twittering, these are definitely random examples and not taken from any specific Tushnet’s life) are keeping you harried and self-obsessed.
L is for Literary. I love these literary Lents–or any of the arts–where we limit our artistic experiences to those compatible with the season of fasting and penitence. Steven Greydanus has a couple nice Lenten movie lists. This kind of thing can help suffuse your day with Lent, as you read on your commute etc; it can also help you envision hope in darkness. This is also something you can do communally, in a book club or watching a movie with friends.
M is for Mortification. Becoming as one dead. What do you need to become dead to? Often the answer will be, To the opinions of others. Injustice will still matter to you when you’re dead but personal offenses against you won’t, so maybe view Lent as a time when you practice indifference to the scum and surf of opinion and judgment. People have widely-varying experiences of the Litany of Humility and if it discourages you don’t pray it, but I love it, and part of why I love it is that it strips away the mantle of importance from other people’s opinions of us. It reminds us that when others abandon us God loves us. His love renders all the yardsticks by which we try to judge our lives and our successes trivial. In its final clause the Litany even reminds us that personal holiness is not the yardstick by which we judge our lives, and not coin with which we can purchase God’s love. The Litany recalls us to our place and our duty, the present moment; that’s enough.
O is for Offline. If you’re reading this you should probably use Lent as a chance to examine your internet use, cut back, reorient how you spend your time, etc. Consider the KonMari method, but for websites.
P is for Penance. Choosing penitential practices related to sins or vices of yours, either ongoing or in the past. For some people this will lead to a kind of delectation of one’s own guilt, and make it harder to remember that our sins are forgiven, so this is even less universally-applicable than most of these suggestions. But for others it will be a good way to remember where we came from and–even more powerfully–a way to transform our guilt and shame into joyful service. If you feel you will be able to look back on these penances with gratitude, seeing the gold God’s grace has poured into your cracked clay, that’s a good sign. All our sins and weaknesses are places where we can experience God’s mercy in a most profound way–and show mercy to others.
Q is for Query. Ask somebody you trust to guide your Lent. If you want actual humility it’s hard to beat doing as you’re told. I don’t do this in advance because I have issues with authority but I have sometimes changed my Lenten practices when they met with skepticism from my spiritual director.
R is for Ridiculous. Sometimes Lent makes you look ridiculous. That’s wholesome. Or you feel ridiculous because you can’t even give up some trivial thing like chocolate for six days out of the week. Laughing at your ridiculousness is a vastly better way to respond to these failures than, like, wallowing in self-recrimination.
S is for Solidarity, but also Skepticism. Melinda makes the point that our Lenten sacrifices can help us stand in solidarity with those who lack what we’ve voluntarily renounced. I… I think this works sometimes, and her post on home is truly powerful. But I am skeptical of how often a chosen sacrifice, especially a sacrifice with a safety net under it, helps us understand the situation of people whose sacrifices are unchosen and inescapable. No matter what I give up it would be very hard for me to experience the helplessness and fear I see in e.g. the poorest clients at the pregnancy center, since my friends and family would be nearby ready to help me if I needed it. IDK, perhaps that realization in itself is part of the point–how can I serve in a way that eases isolation as well as material need?
T is for Time. Even very small sacrifices can become intrusive, and these intrusions sanctify the days and hours of Lent. I have a class that meets in a Whole Foods, and I love rambling through the place before class snacking on the samples, the guacamole and the semolina bread with garlic butter and all that. I don’t do that in Lent and it’s not exactly a heroic sacrifice, but it is a little, intrusive reminder, a little memento mori whispered in my ear between the kumquats and the flaxseed.
U is for Urgency. Lots of people use Lent to give urgency to sacrifices (of habits, etc) they already know they need to make. This strikes me as super dangerous, too much reminiscent of New Year’s resolutions. But some people like this. I think for some people Lent gives them an excuse to break their denial. And giving up a truly destructive habit for Lent, with an eye toward making the sacrifice permanent, helps them fit this unimaginable change into a story. Seeing yourself as part of a larger, ordinary or communal narrative can really ease your shame. I will note that forty days is a lot less than the ninety we’re now told is the time it typically takes to break or take on a habit. But while 40 < 90 it’s also > 0, so.
V is for Vice. (Mmmm, vice.) Are there actions that symbolize or crystallize one of your vices? I love Libresco’s thing about giving up jaywalking, and learning to live with impatience. The thing itself doesn’t have to be a vice, just something that casts a spotlight on your actual vices.
W is for Weakness. Lent is a time of confessing our weakness, so that at Easter we may see God’s strength with even more awe. We heighten our awareness of our helplessness in the face of death, suffering, and temptation. Our weakness should make us gentle with others, and never moreso than at Lent.
X is for X-Ray. Lent is like an x-ray, exposing whatever is going wrong inside us, our entitlement and histrionic selfishness–?? IDK dude, X is always for X-ray.
Y is for Yes. I resist these attempts to make Lent happy or positive, like, “Can you add a thing instead of giving up a thing?” What’s wrong with giving up a thing? But again, I am not you and you’d better be grateful for that, so: Are there places where you have hesitated to say yes to God? Can you more often say yes to those in need? One thing I did last Advent which I am trying to remember to do again now is to always carry some cash so that I never have an excuse to to turn down beggars.
Z is for Zigzag. One year I gave up sweets for Advent. Then I got really bad bronchitis. My doctor suggested cough syrup, which I super extra hate, and when I expressed a milder version of “super extra hate,” she said, “How do you feel about dark chocolate?” So yeah, I was basically prescribed chocolate, and boy did I fill that prescription with a quickness. Anyway forty days isn’t a long time, so maybe push on through if you can, but it’s easy to choose a Lenten practice that would chastise the neuroses you don’t have. E.g. to get super intense if you tend toward scrupulosity, or lax if you tend toward laziness. If you notice that your Lenten practice is feeding your worse tendencies, or discouraging you rather than humbling you, it’s okay to course-correct.