Lent and Love
Some of you may may have heard a story about the monk that excelled in fasting. He fasted every week, day and night, barely taking food or water at all. When meeting with his spiritual director he bragged about his achievement, sharing the details of his experience, and how he had conquered his desire for food. His spiritual director listened for some time and then replied: “Yes, you have excelled at fasting, but you eat your brothers alive.”
Lent begins this month, and with it our 40 day journey to Jerusalem, Holy Week and our celebration of Pascha, or Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection. Lent can mean many different things to different people, but most of us are probably aware of the tendency to make Lent a time of giving something up and/or taking something on. Many people give up chocolate or sweets or soda or television or social media. Many also take on something such as walking everyday or volunteering somewhere or reading Scripture. We call this our Lenten discipline, our Lenten practice, because that is exactly what we are doing, practicing a new habit that we hope to carry past Easter. Most understand the intention of making these kinds of Lenten disciplines a part of life after Lent, that Lent is a chance to grow and transform our lives, not just make us miserable or unhappy.
In fact this is healthy thinking about Lent. It is not a time to punish ourselves or become morose. We cannot make God love us more by inflicting punishment on ourselves, because God cannot love us more than God already loves us – because God is love. Lent is a time of self-examination, of self- knowledge, and a time of transformation, of shaping our lives to be better. Lent, after all, means spring, and as the world wakes up and blooms around us, so are we to wake up and begin to bloom, to struggle out of the soil and prepare to stand in the light of the Risen Jesus.
However, I want to bend your ear about these Lenten disciplines one more time and recall the story about the monk. When you consider Lent in this time and place, choose wisely what your practice will be, and do your best to shape your practice by the intention of love. As you decide what you are going to be doing this year, remember that Lent is not just about self-improvement, but that these improvements and habits have one purpose: To help us to love God and each other better.
If you want to give up chocolate, fine. But why? If you want to get in better shape, that can be good too, but why? How are these things helping us in our relationship with God or with one another? I can imagine situations where both of these practices might do just that, but I would not, for instance, recommend abstaining from chocolate for everyone. For some it becomes a meaningless labor that transforms Lent into a 40 day detention from which we cannot wait to be freed.
See these weeks between now and Ash Wednesday as a time to open your heart and mind to the wisdom and insight of the Holy Spirit. Seek the face of God and listen for God's voice, and consider what God may want you to do in these 40 days to shape your life and grow in God's love. Be determined this Lent, not to be holier, but rather to be a better lover of God and those around you.