When I was a college student taking theology classes with Dr. Regis Martin, there was one thing we could always count on. Year after year, he’d shuffle into the room looking disgruntled on Ash Wednesday Morning, a mason jar of water in his hand (he usually gave up coffee), ashes on his forehead, and make his way to the podium. It would be 8AM.
“I don’t know about all of you, but I’m already sick and tired of Lent.”
I am reasonably certain that even now, more than a decade later, his students were hearing the same thing this week.
Lent is the sort of thing that nobody, except perhaps the truly holy, looks forward to. We are creatures of comfort, and penance — the little that we do — is hardly among our favorite activities. We would much rather live in a perpetual Fat Tuesday than the grind of a daily Ash Wednesday. Each of us deals with penitential seasons in our own way. Most of us, though, have gotten in the reflexive habit of giving something up for Lent. For some, like Dr. Martin’s father, this wasn’t always a penitential choice. Another story he told us on occasion:
“I mean, you want to give up something good, not something bad. My father used to give up watermelon every year for Lent, and even when Lent was over he was giving up watermelon. He despised that fruit. But he gave it up for Lent for forty or fifty years.”
It has become almost a social custom for us to relate to each other what we’ve given up. To compare notes, as it were. So it should come as no surprise that many people share their Lenten sacrifices on social media. And social media is a fascinating thing. More than just a way for us to have an instantaneous conversation with people from around the world, it’s a giant, data-gobbling beast that spits out interesting aggregated results about our online behaviors.
Stephen Smith, a South Carolinian “Bible coder” who works for Biblegateway.com (our Bible verse lookup engine of choice, incidentally) has been analyzing tweets about Lent since 2009.
He expects to analyze around 200,000 tweets about Lent this week.
During Lent, many Christians use the period for reflection leading up to Easter Sunday. Those tweeting about Lent include both serious and silly responses, everything from “alcohol” to “school” and “social networking” for the season where many fast from something specific.
School remains high on the list, and last year it was the number one thing tweeters gave up.
“Last year, Lent started around March close to spring break,” Smith said. “This year, I’m not sure why it’s so high. I’m not sure if that’s related to the weather and school is closed.”
One cultural artifact was new this year: some people announced they were giving up emojis. Before, emojis were barely mentioned at all.
Food is the most popular category tweeted. “Hot Cheetos,” though, are baffling to Smith.
“I didn’t know about them at all before they were on the list,” Smith said. “Last year, I went and bought some and I didn’t find them to be very exciting, but apparently they’re something to be given up.”
After food, technology is the second most popular category given up. Whether people are actually giving up something like Twitter or just saying it to be sarcastic, Smith isn’t sure.
There are a number of other silly things that people are giving up (like Justin Bieber. Seriously? Don’t most of us give him up all year??) and some humorous commentary about ashes, if you care to read the whole thing over at The Washington Post.
Meanwhile, at Faith in Our Families, Fr. Aidan Kieran offers some helpful advice about a “The Little Way of Fasting”:
During Lent, we are asked to take on three traditional Christian disciplines: Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. Today I want to share with you a new insight into fasting which I gained recently.
I’ve generally always dreaded the idea of fasting during Lent. It always seemed to me like a test of endurance, and I never thought I had all that much endurance. Typically I would decide to, say, give up biscuits for the whole of Lent. It would last about ten days, I would have a biscuit and Lent would be over for me. And no matter what people would say about ‘beginning again’ it would never feel the same once failure had set in.
Now, I have learned a new approach to fasting, and it has become a much more appealing prospect.
St Therese of Lisieux teaches us that the “Little things done out of love are those that charm the Heart of Christ… On the contrary, the most brilliant deeds, when done without love, are but nothingness.” These words made me realise that the way I had been approaching the Lenten fast in the past was wrong. Lent is not a test of endurance. It is not even a test of discipline (even though we gain discipline as a by-product). Lent is a little test of LOVE. It is quality the Lord is interested in – not quantity.
I can describe this new approach to fasting – the little way of fasting – with an example. Here is a fast I recently undertook:
At breakfast time I didn’t have my normal cup of tea. I had a cup of hot water instead. It’s not much of a sacrifice is it? But this is the important part: fasting must always be accompanied by prayer. You may remember from the Gospels that on one occasion Jesus told the disciples that a particular evil spirit could only be driven out by prayer AND fasting. The two must be always occur together.
So while I was having my cup of water, I prayed.
I spoke to the Lord Jesus and told him that I was denying myself this 1 cup of tea as an act of love for him. I was doing this so that I might grow in my love for Him. I prayed for others. I asked Him to grant my intentions, but above all I asked him to help me grow in faith and love of Him.
It didn’t matter that it was only a small sacrifice. That’s not what matters to the Lord. What matters is that the sacrifice is accompanied by prayer and offered with a sincere and open loving heart. Fasting must always be accompanied by prayer, and must be done as an act of love for the Lord.
Of course, there are other beneficial spiritual practices during Lent as well: engaging in daily spiritual reading, getting up earlier to give yourself more time to pray, practicing acts of charity, and so on.
There was a time in my life where I spent a couple of years giving up giving things up for Lent. I felt that there was enough suffering in my life that I didn’t need to take on any more. And while my instinct was no doubt fueled by the difficulties I was having with my faith at the time (and not virtuous) there is something to be said for the fact that Lent also provides us a perspective by which to embrace and offer up all the crosses we don’t ask for. From the frustration of difficult children to our lengthy commute to the trials of financial insufficiency to the struggles of poor health, we have so many opportunities to unite our sufferings, no matter how small, with those of Our Crucified Lord.
For a particularly helpful guide on entering into this mindset (and great spiritual reading for Lent) I recommend [easyazon_link asin=”1594170525″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”onep073-20″]Interior Freedom[/easyazon_link], by Fr. by Jacques Philippe.
For meditation on Christ’s passion and death, I still haven’t found anything to beat [easyazon_link asin=”1470090708″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”onep073-20″]The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ[/easyazon_link] by Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich. (This year, I might actually get through all of it before Easter if I really commit myself to making time for it.)
What about you? What spiritual practices do you find most profitable during Lent?
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.