Last week, the priest who was presiding at the Ash Wednesday service at my son’s Catholic elementary school opened mass by asking, “Who thinks that Lent is about giving something up?” A majority of the children, as well as a good portion of the teachers and parents present, raised their hands.
Many of us who were raised Catholics are in the habit of giving something up during Lent, without really understanding why. Fasting, along with abstinence, is one of the three traditional pillars of Lenten practice for Catholics (prayer and almsgiving are the other two). Fasting usually means partaking of only one full meal in a day, something that is required of adult Catholics on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstinence means refraining from something, usually the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays during Lent, but it is also linked to the idea of giving something up during Lent.
Traditionally, fasting and abstinence are understood as a form of penance. When we give up meat on Fridays, for instance, each Friday becomes a mini Good Friday, as we remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us. Practicing self-denial is part of the transformation of our lives to more fully live our baptismal calling. Fasting and abstinence also can serve our prayer lives, as our physical hunger becomes a physical sign of our hunger for God.
Yet following his question at the beginning of the Ash Wednesday service, the priest told us that Lent really is not about giving something up, but rather is about giving ourselves over to God. Giving something up usually only lasts for the six weeks of Lent, the priest told us, after which we tend to go back to our regular patterns or habits. In contrast, when we focus on giving ourselves over to God, we take steps on our spiritual journeys that stay with us for a lifetime.
As I reflected on what the priest had said throughout the mass, it slowly dawned on me that the way in which I gone about giving something up during Lent in the past did not assist me in living my baptismal calling or giving myself over to God. Many years, I gave up chocolate or candy, but not for spiritual reasons. I used this Lenten abstinence in the service of a greater goal of getting in better shape, of losing ten pounds, of finally getting back to the weight I was before I had my children. Other years, I gave up television, not in order to spend more time focusing on my spiritual life but so that I could prove to myself that I could do it. No matter what it was that I gave up, I simply willed myself to get through the six weeks. I gutted it out and then held up my accomplishment to God, internally saying to God, “Look what I have accomplished on my own. Look what I did to be worthy of your love.” And then having crossed the finish line at Easter somewhat exhausted by the will power it took to abstain for six weeks, I would promptly binge on Easter candy or the next season of The Wire (carefully requested from the library at the right time so as to be in my possession at Easter).
So this year, I decided that I still wanted to give something up (old habits die hard!), but to choose something of a different order and to do it in different way. In her wonderful book The Dance of the Spirit, feminist Catholic theologian Maria Harris writes about how the spiritual journeys of women begin with the step of Awakening, and that Awakening often begins with awakening our senses and coming home to our bodies. As someone working toward recovery from an eating disorder, I need to come home to my body in a radical way. Through my journey thus far, I have come to see that my treating my body as a project always to be worked on and viewing my happiness as always ten lost pounds away is a great detriment to my spiritual life. And I do not think that I am alone in this. Many people live disconnected from their bodies, either because they believe spirituality means leaving the body behind or because we live in a society that supports such unhealthy attitudes toward our bodies.
So for Lent this year, I am “giving up” two things that have kept me from appreciating and being at home in my body. First, I am giving up getting on the scale every day. I put the scale away so that I am not tempted to peak at my weight and have been surprised at how freeing it has been to not measure the success of my days by a number on the scale. Second, I am giving up my disconnection from and negative attitude toward my body, or to put it more accurately, I am taking one small step toward this vision of the future. Each morning as I get ready for the day, I take time to cherish one small part of my body, for now my forearms, and I pray that God will help me see and celebrate my body as part of God’s good creation. For the first time, I am not undertaking my Lenten abstinence on my own, but rather am inviting God into the process, praying to be empowered by God’s love and acceptance.