Sometimes I feel like breaking up with Lent. (It’s not you, Lent … really, it’s me.)
It’s not that Lent has done anything wrong (other than being demanding, relentlessly there every, single year, with no regard for my emotional state as I head into it). I just get tired of being the one who gives, gives, gives when Lent wants to take, take, take.
Let me offer a few exasperating examples of Lent’s demands from the past. One year I heard Lent’s insistent voice telling me to give up listening to music whenever I was in my car. At the time, we lived in a small town, a half hour from shopping, kids’ activities, even the church we attended. I enjoyed listening to the radio as we traveled, but Lent had other thoughts. Fine, Lent, I thought. I’ll do it.
Another year, Lent dreamed up a uniquely annoying request: work on decreasing my vanity. Really? I scoffed. I’m not that vain, am I? Can’t you pick on someone else? Grudgingly, I gave up wearing all jewelry and accessories that year. No earrings, bracelets, necklaces, no fussy scarves. Harrumph.
Lent crept up on me one cold winter and whispered, “You know, you have a tendency to complain. Have you ever thought about giving that up for me?” I heaved a complaining sigh. Whatever, I retorted, if you really think it’s necessary.
Then there was the year I gave up an entire constellation of my favorite stuff: coffee, chocolate, snacking, wine, TV, and I think something else. (Breathing? What was left?) I’m not sure why I thought I could sacrifice all those things at once, other than Lent’s insistent nudge: Die to self, die to self, die to self.
What happened after those treks through the desert? I was surprised every single year. Although Lent confiscated my music, it gave me a surprising gift in return. I discovered I had more time to think and pray while I was driving. I no longer craved mere background noise, and I made more intentional choices about what I listened to when Lent was over.
How’d that vanity thing go? It was enlightening to realize how often I fretted about my appearance and freeing to let go of excessive concern. No more worrying about what matched, complemented, or added a fashionable finishing touch. Eventually I simplified my entire wardrobe. I did wear earrings again, but I was happy to be free of a revolving collection of accessories.
What about complaining? Every time I entered “complaint mode,” I countered with the prayer, “Lord, help me serve without counting the cost.” Where did that come from? I wasn’t sure, but instead of indulging in self-pity over every perceived slight, I found myself striving to think less of myself and more of others. I was nudged into gratitude instead of grumbling.
And what about that constellation of everything from coffee to breathing? As Lent was insisting, Die to self, die to self, I began praying, Give life to Tom, give life to Tom. I offered up my sacrifices for my husband’s conversion. I had been a Catholic (and was raising our daughters Catholic) for four years at that point; Tom had continued to resist any organized religion.
But that year, he began questioning things, just a little. Then a little more. One day, we had a profound exchange. He said, “I’ve been thinking about the nature of evil, about how evil really comes down to being separated from God. And … I don’t want to be separated anymore. I want to be where you and the girls are.”
I almost couldn’t breathe. Just the year before, Tom had sworn he would never join the Catholic Church. Was this really happening? Did those Lenten prayers and sacrifices make a difference?
I knew that my husband’s conversion was not my doing. I didn’t inject him with a magical conversion serum or pummel him with apologetics. I didn’t insist that he do anything. But as I’d prayed and sacrificed, I had found myself embracing those sacrifices out of love. Perhaps I just got out of the way that year so God could get to work.
Lent transforms me in some way every single year. I start each Lenten season grudgingly, convinced I want to cling to everything that brings me comfort and helps me cope in a dark, difficult world. But every year, Lent asks me to die to myself for the sake of something greater, and when I submit, I encounter something incredible. I learn (and relearn — oh, what a stubborn student I am!) that Lent isn’t about me. It’s not about my strength, or my sacrifices, or how holy I can make myself, because I can’t make myself holy at all.
Lent transforms me in some way every single year.
C.S. Lewis said, “God gives his gifts where he finds the vessel empty enough to receive them.” Lent encourages me to become that empty vessel, dangling opportunities to open myself up, scoop out the mess, and give God room to fill the void, to make me a new creation. I know I’ll slip up again and forget my lessons; I often do. But there will always be another Lent just around the corner to help me learn anew the lesson the season always teaches me:
It’s not me, God, it’s you.
It’s all you.
Let’s never break up.