I remember when I was a kid, Lent was primarily about figuring out what to say when people asked you, “what are you going to give up?” I do not recall anyone ever explaining to me WHY I must give up chocolate, or whatever… just that it was the thing we all did. As I got older, I began to question the purpose of this practice – or any ascetic practice for that matter. Sure, I understood that they were supposed to draw us closer to God… but I secretly wondered, does God really care what we eat or whether we abstain from eating altogether?
Yet, ascetic practices always appealed to me – perhaps because I believed that somehow they would make me a better person. Somewhat ironically, it was when I became a Benedictine that I began to examine the wisdom of this more deeply.
Benedictine spiritual life does indeed include fasting and abstinence, as well as silence, contemplation, and the sacrament of confession. These practices make up a regular part of life all year long but during Lent, they are emphasized. Benedictines also choose a book to read during the Lenten season, in addition to their usual study. However, all of this is observed with the understanding that none of it should be punishing. Benedictine practice is all about balance; ordered life itself is the long, slow journey of conversion in and through Christ. There are no shortcuts. No hair shirts or self-flagellation, in other words.
So, what does that mean for us? Most of us are not living in cloistered community, with an Abbot/Abbess to tell us what to read, what to eat, when to go to confession or pray, etc. In a way, this makes our spiritual life more challenging. We need to do the hard work of discernment ourselves. It may help to see a trusted priest for spiritual conversation and guidance, but ultimately it is we who must decide. What are the unnecessary distractions keeping us from God’s presence right now? For each of us it will be a different answer, and thus, for each of us, a different Lenten observation.
So, instead of asking you what you are giving up, I ask you: what is distracting you from seeing Christ in your life? From walking more closely with him? I pray that even as we journey our own unique paths this Lenten season, we will find at the end of it that we have all gathered together once more, at the foot of the cross.