For someone like myself who lives in the Northeast, Lent can be a rather dreary time of year. The weather is miserable, the motivation for work is nowhere to be found, we’re past the charm of winter and well before the beauty of spring. It is precisely the last time of year when I want to be fasting and going out of my way to pray. Even more so in our contemporary world, where the very idea of voluntary sacrifice seems increasingly foreign.
There’s a peculiar dichotomy to be noted here. In a time of plenty, when gratification is instantaneous and pleasure rarely hard to find, it can seem a daunting task to wait, to fast, to impose a discipline upon ourselves when for so much of the rest of the year, our lives rarely lack any form of stimulation or gratification.
It is the classic conundrum of seeking the opposite. In times of scarcity, we struggle not to waste away, while in times of abundance we devise any number of hairbrained schemes to not become loss in excess. In a regimented lifestyle, we yearn for personal time, moments of individuality and relaxation, but in times of relative freedom and liberty, staying concentrated on a singular goal and disciplining oneself becomes a daunting, difficult task.
Now coming to the end of my undergraduate years, I have seen both of these balancing acts played out time and time again. Lent is that time when, as a Catholic college student, these difficult realities become most evident. Colleges are unique places within our culture, a place where the secular world comes as close as it can to making a certain experience sacrosanct. A place where the expectations of the greater world enter into an elaborate dance with our Catholic lifestyle.
In college, a time where the freedom one possesses is never underemphasized, enforcing rules upon oneself seems contrary to what your aspirations should be. More so, the demands and rigors of this so-called period of freedom makes the act of self-sacrifice seem all the more ludicrous as every little pleasure which can be had is latched onto passionately with people seeking the briefest respite from the difficulties which higher education poses to many.
Fasting, which after Vatican II has become far less stringent and widespread than it had previously been, is now so little a part of Catholic culture that it comes across as an aberration when its time has come. But during this strange time of the year when we are at last requested to fast, I would say it is best to embrace this spirit, to give one’s all to this act now reserved for this special time of year. This is by no means easy, of course.
For many college students, any manner of self-denial such as fasting seems a ludicrous idea. While it is a common jest to say that college students have it easy before entering “the real world,” this ignores a reality which those in the midst of higher education better understand.
The college student’s day rarely ends at 5 p.m. Those star students, who make the front of magazines, who are held up as the ideal, have lives which may start early in the morning with athletic training, go on to have any number of courses per day, perhaps perform internship work, attending to both immediate homework and long-term projects/papers, and in some of this chaos finding time to maintain a social life— often the only thing keeping that student sane.
I have also heard scattered reports of an elusive practice known as “sleep,” but as recent as this writing, a direct observation of this act has escaped me.
For those who like myself have decided to forgo most artificial sugar this season, the fact that one of the go-to methods for motivating the exhausted, apathetic college student to anything is to ply them with sweet food is a troubling reality. For someone who relies on some ice cream to relax after a rough day or who just wants a little chocolate as a pick-me-up between classes, the grueling avoidance of that one ingredient our snack culture is built upon, becomes aggravating as the days wear on. On the upside, I anticipate dropping a few pounds at least.
Sacrifice, be it of a creature comfort or in the form of fasting, may then seem to the typical student an exceptionally masochistic endeavor. Why make one’s already difficult life even more grueling?
It is an understandable temptation to lighten one’s Lenten burden to the point where it becomes at most an easily navigable inconvenience. I could limit myself to one cookie a day, but then I am not truly without something. I could not go to daily Mass as an additional penance and use that time to relax or do other work, but then is this not supposed to be a time of prayer?
It is tempting to make excuses for our lapses in obligation or for not taking our faith seriously (I’ve certainly made many) but the entire point of Lent is to break free of this lukewarm existence, and to reinvigorate the soul when it might have become complacent.
Such is the struggle in college, as it no doubt is elsewhere. It always seems just as hard enough to sacrifice that it is better to put it off, as though we are scared that our own self-discipline will put our professional and personal lives in sudden jeopardy. We won’t have the strength or focus to study for the big exam or finish that big project for the quarter. We must remember though, that without sacrifice, there is no reward, be it in either the spiritual or physical sense. Without physical struggle, how are we to recognize the ways in which we can overcome our spiritual weaknesses?
In our present age, Lent is perhaps one of the last remaining ways in which we may experience delayed gratification. As a college student, I’ve endured four years to get my diploma, I think then that others like me, and those beyond those frantic years, can afford a few bitter, tiring weeks of self-denial.
Lord God, may I deny the ways of the world in pursuit of you. May no temptation lead me astray from you nor any weakness of mind keep me from my ultimate desire. Keep me strong as I purify my soul in anticipation of your Son’s passion and the glory of the resurrection. Amen.