The three marks of secular Lent

The three marks of secular Lent February 18, 2015

Secular Lent

There are three marks to the traditional Catholic Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. When we think of Lent, we typically tend to focus on the fasting—giving up sweets, coffee, animal products, or whatever else. Leah Libresco at the Catholic Channel explains:

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent — the season of preparation for Easter.  The whole church fasts from meat on Fridays, during this season, and individual Catholics usually make personal commitments to give something up or take something on as a discipline this season.

Less attention is often paid to the other two marks, prayer and almsgiving. Leah discusses her views on prayer in her post, and Joanna McPortland, also at the Catholic channel, kindly sent me some information about almsgiving, or giving to the less fortunate. Mike Aquilina at Catholic Education Resource Center explains how almsgiving combines aspects of both prayer and fasting:

Almsgiving is a form of prayer because it is “giving to God” — and not mere philanthropy. It is a form of fasting because it demands sacrificial giving — not just giving something, but giving up something, giving till it hurts.

Jesus presented almsgiving as a necessary part of Christian life: “when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt 6:2-3). He does not say IF you give alms, but WHEN. Like fasting and prayer, almsgiving is non-negotiable.

I was thinking this morning about what I wanted to do for Lent this year, and I realized that I could fit the ideas I had into a secular model of the three branches of Lent. After some consideration, here’s what I came up with:

1. Digital Fasting: Perhaps I’m taking the idea of fasting too literally, but right now I’m most attracted to the idea of digital fasting. Being immersed in behavioral economics has gotten me to start thinking of my decisions in terms of tradeoffs between the immediate gratification of my present-self and long-term interests of my future-self, and the deck is heavily stacked towards the former. This is particularly apparently in my relationship with my computer and social media (I hardly doubt I’m alone). My iPhone is basically a Skinner box I carry around in my pocket, and I think it’s probably healthy to cultivate some distance.

For this year, I’m committing to disconnect from digital media after 9 P.M. every night—no TV, computer, or phone. I’m toying around with including a digital Sabbath (from sundown Friday to sunup Sunday), and I still might (it’d be a good model for avoiding meat on Friday). My only concern is that I’ll overdo it and become discouraged.

2. Meditation and Journaling: These are the closest secular analogues I can think of for prayer, and many have written that meditation and journaling have a lot in common. There are few who can give better advice on keeping a journal than Joan Didion in her classic essay, but for those looking for something a bit more directly spiritual (and empirically backed!), I think something like gratitude journaling might be a good alternative, too. As for meditation, I’ve found that Dan Harris’s 10% Happier was a really fun and accessible introduction to mindfulness meditation, and there are some great guided meditations online.

This year, I’ll be starting by meditating 5 minutes every day, building in 5 minute increments for each week that passes. I’ll continue to keep a journal, and will hopefully be more steady with it given the time opened up with my digital fast.

3. Pledging to charity: I think tithing for a charity of your choice, preferably to help the poor either local or globally, is a really good option to model almsgiving. The charity evaluator GiveWell has some solid and empirically-backed suggestions for charities to give to. As for how much to give, it’s true that a full 10% tithe may be steep, but Peter Singer recommended in his fantastic book, The Life You Can Save, that pledging to give even 1% of your pretax income would be powerful. That’s roughly what I’ve been doing, but I plan to step it up and pledge 10% of my (pretax) income for the next two months to GiveDirectly, one of my favorite charities. You can read about it at Vox

So that’s my plan for Lent this year. I’m worried that it’s a bit ambitious (and Leah cautioned me to think of how I’ll be kind to myself and get back on track if I slip up; I’m hoping the mindfulness meditation will help with that). I’ll continue to reflect and post on the topic.

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