What Will You Give Up for Lent?

February 14, 2018
Rick Hamlin for The New York Times

Ash Wednesday in New York City, 2001. Credit Greg MillerLent is here, and as a practicing Christian, I know the question is inevitable: “What are you planning to give up?” It’s a tougher decision than it sounds; I look with awe at a woman who gave up sarcasm one Lent. Now, that would be a real hardship.

Lent is the penitential season in the Christian calendar that traditionally runs from Ash Wednesday to Easter. It is 40 days long, not counting Sundays because Sundays are feast days (that woman could indulge in sarcasm on Sundays), and it marks the 40 days and nights Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his ministry.

Forty is one of those biblical numbers that means a long time and is linked to periods of trial, like the 40 days and nights that the torrential rains floated Noah’s ark, and the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert after escaping the pharaoh’s clutches.

You can see why the idea of giving up stuff is linked to this period — “fasting” like Jesus did in the desert. Indeed, many people give up certain foods, going without chocolate or red wine or desserts. A little bit of self-imposed suffering to mark the season and a reason to kick up your heels with chocolate eggs and jelly beans when Easter finally rolls around. Even if you’re not a Christian, the idea of going without for 40 days is not so bad. Call it a diet.

But there’s something else in this Gospel story that I’d rather honor. What does it mean to wander in the wilderness for 40 days and nights and face your demons? How would I do that today? How do you give up all distractions and listen to that inner voice that tells you what you need to be doing but you can’t quite face yet? The idea fills me with a weird combination of joy and dread.

Years ago a wise friend — O.K., he happened to be an Episcopal priest — told me that when religious norms start excluding an essential practice, it pops up elsewhere, often in a secular garb. I feel like that’s one reason meditation has boomed recently, practiced by everybody from Silicon Valley executives to kindergartners. The church forgot how important a regular discipline of emptiness is, something so easy to do in prayer — but its flock didn’t.

I guess it’s not unlike something I do already. I started praying regularly on my morning commute on the subway. I discovered how the external stimuli of doors opening and closing and wheels creaking on the tracks could be channels for some of my own inner doors opening. As long as I kept my eyes closed (funny about that).

Then I took up the practice sitting on the sofa at home. When you get silent you hear a lot of the noise in your head. Sometimes it will masquerade as a fabulous idea that you have to pursue right now, or some item on your to-do list that if you don’t get up from that sofa and log on to your computer, you’ll forget.

You won’t. In fact, what I look to is the forgetting. In the 14th century an anonymous author wrote a wonderful book on contemplative prayer called “The Cloud of Unknowing.” “Whatever you don’t know and whatever you’ve forgotten are ‘dark’ to you,” he says, “because you don’t see them with your spiritual eyes.” (This translation of the original Middle English is by Carmen Acevedo Butcher.) Emptiness is this process of unknowing.

It seems a happy accident that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are on the same day this year, love and mortality meeting. Not long ago, my twentysomething son stood on a New York City street corner with some of his church pals and marked anyone who asked with the traditional cross of ashes on their forehead one Ash Wednesday. He even did it to a bus driver who pulled over to the curb and called him inside, an extraordinary moment of spiritual intimacy on a busy day.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we are forced to remember that our lives are short indeed. “Lent” has its origins in an Old English word for spring, but I sometimes like to think it’s a reminder that our lives are not a right. They’re a gift. In a way, they’re “lent.”

It would be a mark of false humility to tell you what I plan to give up or take on for Lent, if anything. But as I consider the options, I hold on to this idea of self-emptying, wilderness wandering.

Which brings me to one final comment. People will say, “If you’re giving up something for Lent, isn’t it something you should be giving up anyway?” Oh, come on. Enjoy the rhythms of life, savor the seasons, listen to what they ask. How wonderful that there is this time to not do more but to do less. Happy Lent.

Rick Hamlin is the executive editor of Guideposts magazine and the author of “Pray for Me.”  Photo Credit: Ash Wednesday in New York City, 2001 by Greg Miller.