Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Every time Lent rolls around, I find that I actually enjoy the opportunity to deny myself worldly comforts in order to focus solely on spiritual nourishment. I appreciate the simple beauty of this penitential time, and joyfully embrace the chance to turn away from the pleasures of the world and focus on what really matters.
For about twenty days. And then I’m over it.
This year, for example, I decided to make the small sacrifice of giving up candy. The day after Ash Wednesday was the first time I found myself tempted, and my thought process was something like this:
Mmmmm, that box of Nerds that my toddler is eating looks delicious! I’m sure she wouldn’t notice if I…oh, wait, I gave up candy for Lent. Well, as I watch her enjoy this food, the tiny amount of suffering I experience will give me something to offer up as an act of penance for my sins. I can also use this time to meditate on what Christ has suffered for us. Indeed, what a wonderful opportunity this will be to detach from the hollow pleasures of the world.
Last night, twenty-something days later, I found myself tempted once again. And this time my reaction was more like this:
Mmmmm, that candy looks delicious! Oh. Wait. Is it STILL Lent?! Does this never end? I WANT THE HOLLOW PLEASURES OF THE WORLD BACK!
In other words: Around the halfway point of Lent, I stopped getting anything out of it. When Ash Wednesday first rolls around each year, fasting and penance actually sound good to me. First of all, change is always invigorating. It’s fun to enter a different season of the year, to break out of the routine and do something new. Also, I often feel mentally and physically bloated after the decadence of the Christmas season, and for selfish reasons alone I look forward to simplifying my eating habits and my life in general. After letting the pendulum swing too far in the direction of indulgence during the holidays, it’s natural to let the pendulum swing back the other way for a while.
But then, a few weeks in, the Christmas season long forgotten, nothing about Lent sounds good for selfish reasons anymore. Concepts like penance and detachment have grown stale. I miss the things I’ve given up, and no longer have the rush that comes with a change in routine to act as a counterbalance to the discomfort that my little acts of penance cause me.
That is why this week, after the fourth Sunday of Lent, is when Lent really begins for me.
Each year at this juncture of the liturgical calendar, I face a crossroads: I can drag my feet now that the personal payoff is gone for me, gritting my teeth and holding on by my fingernails until Easter. Or I can realize that this is the moment when I can begin to understand this season. Now that my opportunities for selfishness are gone, my sacrifices can finally be about nothing more than deeper union with Christ. The season may have been in full swing for weeks now, but in terms of the potential for real personal transformation, Lent has only just now begun.