If you still haven’t decided what is beneficial and appropriate for you to fast for Lent, you’re not alone. For most of us, the really inspired ideas are pretty rare. It’s easy to turn Lent into a diet, or a way to boast publicly of doing without something pleasurable.
I don’t know if we need to identify what the world tells us are common temptations and excesses so much as we need to identify our walls. What are the obstacles we’ve constructed that keep us at a safe distance from Jesus? Those are the things that, for Lent and forever after, need to go.
For the most part, they will be our pet sins — the things we let slip under our sin radar because we like these sins and they’re not as obvious or gory as the sins someone else commits. Complaining, for example, or listening to gossip, even if you don’t share the gossip you’ve heard. If you have been watching a television show or listening to music that you know is really not appropriate, Lent is the perfect time to live without it. Give it up and see what Jesus puts in its place. Vanity is another huge area to explore for Lent — for us ladies, it’s almost certain that we can fast something related to our physical appearance, whether it be cosmetics, hair color, nail polish, checking the mirror, or making unnecessary purchases of clothing and/or cosmetics.
A lot of pet sins are held in the tongue: criticism, profanity, whining, passive-aggressiveness, degrading one’s spouse or children, hollering or losing one’s temper, laughing at inappropriate jokes, inserting my opinion where it’s really not needed (like where it’s simply redundant/chiming in). Try for the entire period of Lent to only say things that will build others up and bring them closer to Jesus.
If you are shy or embarrassed about discussing your faith, Lent is an ideal time to go out on a limb and fast your reticence. Speak out openly and assertively about God’s Law and the Natural Law, and how they save lives and souls. Speak about Jesus’ suffering and how it touches you. Ask someone where he or she is in the spiritual journey and try to act as a human bridge to the next level.
Also look for the those things we mock or point out in others. They are generally a variation or protection of our own thorns. By this I mean, that if I find myself becoming aggravated by a certain kind of person, or a certain behavior and I am fixating on it to the point where it’s taking up a lot of my time and thought and even prayer, then it could just be that I’m projecting or protecting — projecting my own dissatisfaction or insecurity, or protecting my own sin.
If I see myself becoming annoyed with cafeteria Catholics, annoyed to the point of checking charity at the door, maybe it’s not righteous indignation. Maybe it’s that I know there is a teaching that I am secretly ignoring or defying. And that creates an insecurity in me that only feels soothed when I am shouting so loudly at someone else that I can’t hear my own telltale heart under the floorboards.
Lent is a gift. It’s a not-very-long period of time when we can really test our skills at mortification. At the beginning of Lent, I can look in the mirror and say, “Okay, kid, let’s see what you can do.” Some Lenten sacrifices are more stellar than others and end up producing much greater fruit. Some fall on their faces very quickly, and if that occurs, I suggest quickly replacing with something else, so as to stay in the race and not lose momentum.
There is a Gospel song I could listen to all day and night. In it, the words repeat, “Oh, Lord, please remove these thorns.” It refers, of course, to thorns in the flesh, ranging from physical illness to addictions to demonically influenced behaviors. The song goes on to plaintively beg God to help pull out the thorns because they are hindering spiritual progress. This is our motivation for Lent, not to show we can do it, not to be able to have a really good mortification to share with others, but to move ahead in the marathon, move closer and closer to Jesus.
We do that by shedding weight, dropping baggage. Food, vanity, smugness, judgment, licentiousness, a roaming eye, a bad habit, a good comeback that we keep inside instead of letting it go on our chosen target. If you do Lent right, you will feel deprivation, yes, but you will also feel Jesus fill in the blanks with something new and interesting.
He will teach you about yourself and your place in the world. He will teach you that it’s not worth it to have the extra donut, the extra pair of jeans, the last word, the peek at the dirty channel, or the Pharisaical high, because after you come down from these, you are squinting to see Jesus’ face, instead of being close enough to look Him in the eye.
Lent is an adventure, a microcosm of the bigger adventure that is Catholicism. They are both about obedience, smallness, and service. Neither is about taking, winning, or the flesh.
There used to be a saying; maybe there still is. “If it feels good, do it.” This was or is the motto of a society that is constantly seeking adventure via the body and the first layers of the mind. Initial gratification and earthly victory are the gods of that quasi-religion.
I say we modify that for Lent, my friends. “If it feels holy, do it.” And flip it: “If it doesn’t feel holy, don’t do it.” Strip yourself down and privately examine your conscience and your interior life. What are your thorns? Oh, now you see them. I see mine. And they’re not a pretty sight.
Remove those thorns and run home to God. Adventure takes place in the soul — not the groin or the wallet or the telephone or the water cooler. Not by gambling with the health of your brain and body, not with listening to lascivious details of someone else’s life, and not by tearing down someone else’s relationship with Christ or His Church in order to relive, medicate, or work out your own spiritual hang ups.
Use Lent to knock down the walls between you and Jesus so He can see you and you can see Him. Use Lent to rip out the thorns, and approach Jesus boldly to ask Him for what you really desire.