My Lent fascination started early. For years before submitting myself to Rome, I looked forward to Lent as a time of spiritual renewal.
This might seem strange: In childhood, I knew nothing of Lent. Growing up in the Mormon church, we celebrated Easter, but for us, it was just a single day. The Easter decorations might go up a couple of weeks before the holiday, but they came down immediately afterwards. As festivities go, it was about on a level with Independence Day. This never seemed at all adequate to commemorate an event that is, after all, the most important thing that ever happened in the history of mankind. I love malted Cadbury eggs, but something more seemed warranted. As a teenager, I was quite dissatisfied with this.
Then I found myself an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, where I learned that Catholics really did have more. So much more. I was wildly excited by this new concept of a season of mortification, leading up to an extended season of rejoicing. Looking over the calendar, I realized that the cycle would practically fill the whole spring semester! I could hardly wait to get started on my first Lent.
Naturally, I thought a lot about penances in those early years. I don’t clearly remember which ones I ended up choosing, though my impression is that some were fairly strange. For a while, I was fascinated with extreme asceticism and would do two- and three-day water-only fasts periodically throughout Lent. (I kept this quiet, but not out of proper humility. I was just afraid of ending up in a counselor’s office, hearing a lecture on eating disorders. Truthfully though, I had no body-image issues, just a youthful desert-hermit fixation.) Only one other Lent stands out in my memory: the year I gave up hot water. That was some good, bracing mortification.
Mostly though, those days are something of a blur. Undergraduate life was a panoply of comforts and pleasures, and I had a fairly ridiculous degree of control over my daily activities and habits. So it seemed appropriate, and not terribly difficult, to “prune myself back” for six weeks each year by doing without this or that nicety. I figured it was a useful corrective to the decadence of modern life.
Fast-forward 15 years, and I found myself pondering an entirely different question: How do you observe Lent when your whole life sort of feels like a perpetual Lent?
I don’t mean to complain here. (Remember, I’ve always relished Lent!) But these successive seasons of life are clearly very different. In my college days, I was mostly a free agent, drifting through the world at my own pace, along my own preferred route. I could choose to modify my habits in a thousand possible ways. Nobody but me was affected. It seems absolutely amazing to me now that, once upon a time, I could choose not to eat for three days, and nobody else even realized what I was doing.
Now, I’m a wife, mother, parishioner, community member, philosopher and professional writer. And a bona fide Catholic, with a real sacramental life. In countless ways, my life has grown immeasurably richer. But it is also dramatically more constrained. Everything I do or don’t do affects other people. Free time? What’s that? I’m only familiar with “chip away at the never-ending to-do list” time, and that clock keeps running until my body and brain refuse to function anymore. Then I sleep, and it all starts over again.
To be clear, I really don’t mind having a hectic life. As I see it, this middle-adulthood phase is meant to be like that: crammed with meaningful activity. It’s appropriate. It’s a blessing. But it does make Lent somewhat challenging, because I just don’t have much latitude for personal adjustments. It’s hard to do corporal works of mercy with multiple small children in tow. Social media is pleasant but not really a luxury; I use it all the time for my work. And while I can pass on the occasional cookie or sundae, I can’t return to the serious fasting of my younger days because I’m pregnant.
People sometimes tell me, “Oh, don’t worry about fasting this year, because you’re pregnant.” Or: “I think you have enough on your plate without worrying about penances.” I understand that they’re trying to help. But here’s the problem: If I don’t find a way to make Lent especially meaningful, I won’t experience the full benefit of the Easter cycle. And I need that spiritual renewal, perhaps now more than ever. So, how can a busy, pregnant mom observe her favorite penitential season?
Here’s my main solution. Maybe it will be helpful to others as well.
However busy we are, there are always certain tasks that are more palatable to us than others. They tend to gravitate to the top of the to-do list. (Planting the garden. Yes! Let’s do it!) Meanwhile, the really hated chores keep getting pushed back. I can go a long time without finding time to clean the fridge, sort the closets or make the dental appointments.
The hated chores still need to be done sometime. Make Lent that time. Prepare for Easter by doing all the really unpleasant tasks on your list, in preparation for a season of pleasant (if still frantic) activity.
I get incredibly excited for Paschaltide knowing that that’s when I get to stop sorting closets and turn my attention to the yard instead. (I hate housework and love yard work. That’s just me.) I file insurance forms and eat the nasty stuff from the back of the freezer during Lent. Sometimes I really get crazy and wash the windows. I rarely get through everything I intend, but however far I get, the penitential to-doing is going to stop once Easter comes.
Once I had the insight to organize things this way, I realized that my life still desperately needs a “season of sobriety,” but for different reasons. In my college days, the extra measure of discipline helped to curb laziness and keep youthful appetites in check. Now, I’m not all that lazy or decadent, but I do have a problem with putting off unpleasant jobs. Lent keeps me from getting completely buried, before the fridge gets moldy and my children’s teeth rot. And, oddly, it does give me that sense of spiritual renewal. I’m putting my house in order (sometimes literally!) in preparation for the Lord.
I’m firmly convinced that everyone needs a little Lent in their lives. Figuring out how to do it, though, can be a little tricky. Over the years, our temporal and spiritual needs tend to change. If older Lenten practices don’t seem effective anymore, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself: Which area of my life is really hurting for attention? Are there painful-but-possible steps I could take to address that? Go from there.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy
at the University of St. Thomas
in St. Paul, Minnesota,
and is a Catholic convert.