The Spirituality of Lent
“It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. You bid your faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast; that, fervent in prayer and in works of mercy, and renewed by your Word and Sacraments, we may come to the fullness of grace which you have prepared for those who love you.” --Proper Preface for Lent, BCP p. 379
The guiding question of Lent is NOT “What am I going to give up?” Rather, the question to be asking ourselves as Lent begins is “How can I draw closer to Jesus Christ?” Or perhaps, “How can I experience more fully the new life of grace which Jesus Christ offers?” While it is an ancient practice for Christians to “give something up” for Lent – to “fast” from something which may be a type of food, a habit, or something else – the purpose of this practice is not to eliminate all enjoyment from Lent, reducing the season to a grueling drudgery that we have to trudge through. Rather, the purpose of fasting is to hone our attention and draw our focus to what is really important – first and foremost, to our relationship with God. Sometimes, in order to focus on what is important, we have to give up things that distract us or make us too busy, hurried or anxious to be attentive. Sometimes, in order to renew our focus on God, we have to carve out time to pray and make a very deliberate effort not to fill that “time slot” with other demands and other things to do – which is surprisingly difficult! Setting aside this time can feel like a very real “giving up” of other things, when those other things are clamoring for time and attention. Or perhaps we have to give up something that has somehow managed to gain a place in our lives that is more prominent than it should be – something that we have come to see as “essential” when it is not, or something that we like to indulge in such that it has become spiritually or physically unhealthy. Sometimes “giving up” something for Lent is simply a matter of changing our normal routine, disrupting our usual habits such that we are reminded of God’s presence in our lives on a more immediate and regular basis than usual. It is not the point of the Lenten fast to be deprived just for the sake of being deprived. During Lent, we are called to give intentional care to our relationships with God and others, to make note of how those relationships are amiss, and take concrete steps to amend our lives so that we are living more in accordance with God’s ways. Fasting, or “giving something up,” can be an important part of these steps, if the thing or habit that you give up is chosen carefully and prayerfully, with the purpose of bringing you closer to Christ.
Often, it is more helpful to think of “taking something on” for Lent, rather than giving something up. Many people take on a new prayer discipline, such as praying the Daily Office, practicing silent prayer or meditation every day, or doing spiritual reading each day. Taking on a new practice of prayer is a great way to attend to our relationship with God during Lent, and to draw closer to Christ. It is also a good way to undertake the self-examination that Christians are called to during Lent, that deep looking into our own hearts to contemplate where we need God’s grace and love to heal us, cleanse us, transform us, and bring us to new life. This self-examination is not always easy – who likes to be honest with themselves about where they are broken, messed up, dead or in need of change? But if it is couched in prayer, trust in God’s undying love for us, and an openness to God’s grace, this spiritual work can be wonderfully life-giving. Such a Lenten practice can indeed prepare us for the new life that Jesus Christ offers to us not only after we die, but in the here and now. Lent is the ideal time to deepen our spirituality and make prayer a primary part of our daily lives.
Another ancient and important Lenten practice is helping the poor and needy. It can be very meaningful during Lent to give up something non-essential that you spend money on. (I have some friends who give up ALL non-essential shopping during Lent.) Really, we all spend a lot of money on a lot of non-essential things, and if you are honest with yourself about this, you might be surprised by how much money you save in the weeks of Lent. You might also be surprised at how refreshing and freeing it is to discover that you really just don’t need that stuff! At the end of the season, donate that saved money to a charity. Again, in this Lenten practice, the purpose is not to be miserable because you are deprived. The purpose is to simplify, re-gain perspective on what is essential and what is not, and to practice Christian stewardship by giving money away.
Whatever practice or discipline you undertake during Lent, keep in mind that the purpose is to deepen your relationship with God, renewing your spiritual life and your love of Christ. A Lenten discipline may be challenging, and taking the risk of doing something that does not come completely naturally or easily to us – or something that we think we just don’t have time for – can bear very real spiritual fruit. However, if all you can think about during Lent is how you can’t wait until this horrible, miserable, un-fun season of Lent is over, then you are probably approaching Lent in a way that is out of balance and is not fulfilling the purpose of deepening your love of God and neighbor. On the other hand, if you are able to simplify, to cut down on busy-ness, hurry and anxiety, to pray more than usual or more richly than before, then your Lenten practices will bear reward long after the initial celebration of Easter has passed. Take the Lenten season to focus on the relationships that are most important to you – first and foremost, your relationship with God – and you will truly have a holy Lent.
-- The Rev. Amanda K. Gott