I went to mass and catechism every week from the time I was five till I went to college at 17. But despite all that quality time with the Catholic church, I seemed to have missed some important information.
Near the top of the list: Why do we give up things for Lent?
I think I was told it had something to do with sacrifice. Most of the time, people gave up their favorite food. After all, Jesus gave up his life for us, so the least we could do is stop eating Mars bars. Or maybe it symbolized the 40 days he spent wandering in the desert before his ministry began? Jesus fought the devil's lies, and we fight off our craving for pizza.
I gave up being Catholic a long time ago. I still go to church, but it's a pretty modern urban United Methodist church that welcomes LGBT folks and doesn't give me lectures on birth control.
Still, the ritual of Lent has stayed with me. I'm drawn to its pared-down simplicity -- the starkness of an undecorated church, the tolling bells that rang as we left mass in place of joyful hymns, the symbols of ashes and incense. It's meaningful to me. Like the grey skies and bare trees of the end of winter, I feel the call to turn inward and reflect about what in my life needs pruning.
At one point in my life, I gave up giving things up for Lent. It was stupid, I thought, and superficial. Yes, I too love and crave chocolate, but at the end of 40 days, I will just eat up my share anyways in the form of a large hollow bunny. What's the point?
Then a couple of years ago, I had an idea. I gave up buying things for Lent. I still let myself by food and necessities -- medicine, toilet paper, etc. But I stopped buying little things for myself -- a new lipgloss, a caramel latte, a sweater on the clearance rack.
It was a small thing, but it was hard. Sale at my favorite store? Don't even bother going in. Need the right pair of shoes to go with that dress? See if you can borrow some from a friend. Drink a nice cup of coffee that you make yourself at home and curl up with a good book -- one you already own or borrowed from the library.
I found myself being creative. Stretching how long I could enjoy something I already had. Finding substitutes for the momentary zing that comes from purchasing something new. Appreciating my many blessings.
At the end of 40 days, I could buy things again. But I didn't. It changed the way I thought about my money and my resources. It changed the way I thought about what brings me joy and happiness. It caused me to question why I felt I needed to buy things and what that said about the state of my soul.
It wore off eventually. In fact, when I look at my bank statement, I could probably use to go back and do it again. But the lessons that I learned are still with me. It was a really meaningful 40 days.
I was thinking about that experience tonight as I pondered the beginning of Lent. What would I give up? The thought came to me instantly -- saying negative things about myself.
I have a habit of putting myself down when anything happens. If I make a mistake, it's because I'm an idiot. If I forgot something, I'm dumb. I spend a good percentage of my days apologizing for anything and everything and adding in how I'm deficient.
It's just a little thing, but I do think it matters. Words affect us. When I put myself down, what am I saying to others about their mistakes? What am I internalizing about myself? And what about my son? He's just learning to communicate himself, so what does it say to him when mama is always calling herself names?
I may not be Catholic anymore, but I am going to go back to my roots this year and give up something for Lent. It's not really a sacrifice, but it will be hard.
At the end of it, I believe it will have changed me. But how? I'm not sure. I've got to give it up to find out.