One of my Lenten practices is giving up wearing jewelry. I will write more about this practice later; for now, suffice it to say that over the past thirteen years it has been a good Lenten discipline for me. For the last few years I have been concerned about my cufflinks, though. Many of my black priest shirts require cufflinks, and not wearing them would cause my sleeves to flop about ridiculously. But do cufflinks, made of metal in beautiful designs, count as jewelry? I’m not sure. Some years back, I did buy some very basic, simple cufflinks to be my Lenten cufflinks, but they are still bright and shiny. I continued to puzzle the cufflink conundrum. In response to this, my husband bought me knotted cloth cufflinks for my birthday this past summer. Finally, cufflinks that are, un-debatably, not jewelry! One pair in black, to match the shirts, and another in – oh joy of joy! – red for Holy Week. So, on the first day of Lent, I excitedly withdrew the black, knotted cloth cufflinks from the place where I had carefully tucked them, lo those many months ago, and prepared to don them for the season.
The knots are too big to fit through the holes in my clergy shirts. They won’t work. I whined and stamped my feet. Filled with disappointment, I begrudgingly got out my simplest silver cufflinks and put them on instead, sighing and grumbling about the unfairness of it all, the injustice of a universe where the knots of my special cufflinks did not fit through the holes of my priestly shirts. And what would people say when they saw this shiny silver just blinging forth from my sleeves, so brazenly, during the austere season of Lent?
Then it hit me. This obsession with my cufflinks was serving the exact opposite purpose of what a Lenten practice is supposed to do. The purpose of any Lenten practice – whatever we give up, take on, or change for the season – is to draw our hearts and minds to God. My heart and mind had been on my cufflinks. Inordinately so. For every moment that I spent fussing about what my cufflinks were made of, how they looked, how simple or elaborate they are, whether or not they count as jewelry – all of this was time and energy and attention that was distracted away from God. I lamented that the cloth cufflinks didn’t fit, but I was not considering the ways that my heart and mind were turned away from the Holy One. The very practice that was intended to increase my focus on God had become an obstacle, creating another focus of attention that prevented me from seeking and drawing close to God. My effort to be pious or religious or holy or whatever had resulted in a fixation with the letter of the law and with appearances that was not holy or spiritual in any way - the opposite of the Lenten hope to enter into deeper intimacy with our Creator.
Religious practices do not exist as an end in themselves. During Lent or at any other time, the point of religious practices, practices of prayer, or spiritual disciplines is to draw us closer in love to the God who so deeply and generously loves us, always. Sometimes our religious habits actually get in the way of that. Now, don’t get me wrong. Many religious practices and spiritual disciplines have been handed down for thousands of years precisely because wise people have found, through experience, that they can be effective in deepening relationship with God. But each and every one of them can also become an obstacle, especially if we become fixated on them. I am still giving up jewelry for Lent. However, my cufflinks are shiny silver, blinging forth. And rather than moaning that my cufflinks aren’t right, I give thanks to God.