Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent for Western Christian churches and the day when millions of Christians around the world will begin a 40 day fast in an effort to get closer to God and prepare for Easter.
This year, despite having been a Christian my entire life and Catholic for the last 15 years, I will be joining them for the very first time.
As a child growing up in an Evangelical home, Lent was not generally acknowledged and while the practice of fasting in order to stimulate spiritual growth was respected, doing it at a particular time of the year as prescribed by your Church was considered mindless obedience to a man-made construct that bordered on heresy.
Even when I joined the Catholic church as an adult, the tradition of fasting during lent was one I considered optional and dogmatic, like holy days of obligation or using sex for procreation purposes only; church doctrine designed to control people, not serve them. Jesus may have fasted in the wilderness for 40 days before beginning his ministry, but Lent as we know it today most likely started nearly 200 years after he died. I wasn't convinced that abstaining from a particular habit during Lent cultivated deeper faith.
For one thing, I suspected most of the Catholics I knew who were giving something up for Lent were more motivated by vanity, then spirituality. Lent seemed designed for people who lack the ability to enjoy vices in moderation, or who want a good excuse to try to lose those extra five pounds or quite smoking; religion as Life Coach. Even worse, Lent seemed to set people up for failure. From what I could see, very few people who made Lenten promises fulfilled them and instead of drawing closer to God, they withdrew into their guilt and shame over failing.
Catholics love to keep score. I learned this early on in my relationship with my husband. When we first began dating, we were in our mid-twenties and attending a lot of weddings, many of which took place in Catholic churches on Saturdays. On one particular occasion, my husband invited me to join him and his parents for dinner on Sunday night at the same time he and I usually went to church together. “You don’t want to go to mass?”, I asked him. “We went to mass yesterday at the wedding,” he said, “that counts.” I laughed and asked to whom it counted, but he could not say. The only person counting was him!
While this story has become a private joke between my husband and I, it illustrates many Catholic’s tendencies to place a high value on the letter of the law, and ignore the spirit of the law. Unlike my Evangelical upbringing which taught me to openly question tradition, ritual, and anything considered “religious” as it was just as likely to be faithless, automatic behavior, devoid of meaning, as it was likely to be a sincere act of faith, my husband, like so many catholics, was grading himself based on his ability to follow the rules. Lent, I thought, was just one more measuring stick Catholics used to judge themselves by.
Still, I had been drawn to Catholicism in college by people like Henri J.M. Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Mother Teresa, and countless others who aren’t and will never be famous; amazing priests and nuns committed to social justice, unconditional love, and church reform. The older I got, the wearier I grew of the Evangelical church’s absolute need to be right; to squeeze uncertainty out of every issue and make it black and white. The great heroes of the Catholic church are refreshingly comfortable with mystery by comparison. Catholicism makes room for things that can’t be explained. Many of the leaders I know in the Catholic church - Jesuits, Franciscans - wrestle with the gospel and aren’t threatened by grey areas. Instead of beating complicated questions of faith into submission to their political or theological opinions, the Catholic leaders I know grapple with these matters openly and humbly.
I love the Catholic church. I respect the Church’s traditions as well-intentioned, at least, and divinely-inspired at best. But like all churches, Catholicism is made up of flawed, imperfect humans and I’ve struggled to reconcile the Church’s sincere desire to spread love, hope, and peace throughout the world with their institutional habit of making rules, enforcing them, and enabling a culture that, at times, misses the whole point.
Therefore, for the last fifteen years, while my Catholic friends and family members (including my own children) chose to abstain from something they enjoy during Lent, I opted for partial participation, adding faith-inducing exercises to my day, such as praying for a particular person, attending extra masses during the week, or reading a spiritual book, rather than subtracting a bad habit or pleasurable activity.
Generally speaking, I think adding in a positive spiritual discipline is a great way to honor the spirit of Lent, prepare for Easter, and increase faith. But even I have to admit that it isn’t sacrificial and it doesn’t feel particularly penitent. So this year l have decided to participate fully in Lent by giving up two things that give me a lot of pleasure: alcohol and candy. As of tomorrow, I will not be drinking or eating candy for the next 40 days. Not because I have to, but because I really, really want to. Here’s why:
First, I’ve had an unusually stressful year. In the last eight months, I’ve experienced enough change - including the loss of my mother and a career change - to earn me an impressively descent score on the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory Test. Virtually every category of my life that can experience change - my relationships, my daily routines, my finances - has. I am acutely aware of how little control I have in my life and fully expect that everything I’ve taken for granted is, in reality, subject to change. Although I’m still generally hopeful and happy, I’ve reached some new lows this past year. I have learned that I’m not impervious to the Siren Call of the dark side. More than any other time in my life, I need my faith.
Second of all, my husband is also giving up alcohol for Lent; something he’s done (very successfully) for the last several years. Having a partner who isn’t drinking makes it much easier to skip that evening glass of wine and will help hold me accountable to my commitment. I’m also curious to see if our marriage benefits in any way from our individual decisions to ditch this particular vice and focus on our respective inner lives.
Finally, I’m giving up something that brings me pleasure because I suspect it may be the decision itself - and the act of making that decision again and again each day - that will enrich and build my faith. I’m not submitting to this tradition because I have to; I’m submitting to it because I really want my faith to grow and if making this sacrifice can help that happen, it will be worthwhile.
I don’t have a drinking problem and I don’t have a weight problem. I don’t use alcohol to escape my responsibilities or numb myself. I eat candy because the act of masticating gummy bears relieves tension and tastes yummy. I drink during the week because it’s a nice way to unwind after a long day and I drink on the weekends because I go to a lot of parties and, frankly, I enjoy getting my buzz on from time to time. Come April 16th, I have every intention of reintroducing these chemicals back into my life!
Alcohol and candy are not evil. They do not directly impede my spiritual growth. But they are poor stress relievers and like a pea beneath a princess’s mattress, they subtly irritate and disrupt my life. Spiritual growth requires energy and, while temporarily pleasurable, alcohol and candy interfere with the things that give me energy: sleep, exercise, and quality time alone and with the people I love.
I don’t know if my motivations are perfectly pure, but I don’t think they’re hypocritical and empty either. I don’t feel “called” to make this decision, nor do I think it makes me a “good Catholic”. Abstaining from two of my favorite vices for 40 days is probably not going to change my life dramatically. But my soul feels compelled to do it and my conscience agrees and is at peace. That’s all the confirmation I need to move forward and see where it leads me.