At the heart of the Lenten season is an interesting paradox.
Lent is not observed in the making of Lenten commitments, but you can’t actually observe Lent without making a commitment.
Elsewhere at Sojourners, Jarrod McKenna reminds us that Lent is not ultimately about “giving up stuff” but about “the preparation of our hearts for what God has done in Christ.” Adam Ericksen encourages us that, “The worst thing we can do during Lent is to be tempted to earn God’s favor through self-denial.”
To both these points and posts I say, amen.
But as a lifelong Protestant who recently returned from spending time with Benedictine monks and nuns in New Mexico, I’ve come back with some evolving perspectives on fasting and other ascetic practices from the Catholic tradition. This isn’t in contradiction to either of these authors’ perspectives but more of a summation of my recent convictions as someone who has tended to skip the Lenten fasts altogether.
Here is what has struck me. I do not believe most Western Christians today are so focused on giving up their creature comforts for Lent that they are in danger of making their faith dependent upon physical fasting. Maybe I’m generalizing too much. So I’ll make this statement more personal:
My greatest struggle has not been that I have been so committed to “giving up stuff” for Lent that I have forgotten that God’s grace is unconditional. Rather, I have tended to avoid the discomfort of giving up my daily habits and physical dependencies by using a vague sense of “inner attitudes” of preparation as an excuse. As a result, I believe I’ve been missing some real opportunities to be receptive to God’s grace.
There are few reasons I believe this to be so important.
Our Habits Shape Us
First, we are creatures of habit. Our habits shape our lives whether we are aware of them or not. Some of our habits can be so powerful that it might be more accurate to say that we are “had” by our habits instead of “having” them.
Habits are the kinds of actions, attitudes, and behaviors that have in some sense become “second nature.” We have done them consistently enough that they don’t require much, if any, conscious thought to do them again. They are not limited to mostly benign behavior (like biting your nails or caffeine consumption) but are often moral in nature. Our habits can include how we respond to others and whether it is in anger or in love, violence or in peace, with antipathy or empathy.
This is why Lent (along with other times of fasting) can be so significant. When we disrupt our habits, we shake up the typical ways that we live and interact with the world around us. These disruptions allow us to identify things that we have been reliant on or other habits that have shaped how we have related to others. The act of “giving up” can be a powerful way to prepare the soil of our hearts that they might be more receptive to the work of God’s grace in our lives.
Beauty of the Desert
Second, a recent homily delivered in the desert, about the desert, from a person who has committed to living their life in the desert was especially poignant for me. A brief summation and elaboration on some words from Brother Benedict at Christ in the Desert Monastery:
It is significant that each year of the lectionary cycle has the Gospel reading for the Sunday after Ash Wednesday as the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert (or wilderness.) The 40 days of Lent match up with the 40 days that Jesus was tempted and references back to the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt.
Desert experiences can be either involuntary, as in the case of the Israelites, or voluntary, like Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. But it is important to note that the involuntary wandering of the Israelites for the desert for 40 years can be understood not as an act of divine retribution, but one of restoration and preparation. Deuteronomy 8:2 says:
Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. (NLT)
Nothing reveals all our many habits and dependencies like stepping away from the comfort of our everyday lives and into the desert. The desert was a place of transformation and what prepared the way for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. Later, in Hosea, the prophet even speaks of the desert with a kind of beauty in reference to his wife’s (Israel’s) unfaithfulness:
But then I will win her back once again. I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her there. – Hosea 2:14 (NLT)
We see Jesus readily embrace a journey to the desert because he understands it not as a trial that simply must be endured but as a training ground to be prepared for what is coming next. The voluntary absence of familiar surroundings and other creature comforts does not ultimately diminish the fullness of the life one lives but enhances it through the character that is formed during that time.
The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk points out in his book, You Must Change Your Life that the earliest monks were referred to as “athletes of Christ.” Just as the broader Roman culture praised and sought to emulate the gladiators for their discipline and athleticism, the monastics were held up (by some early Christians) for their discipline and ascetic practices.
These monastics did not understand going out to the desert as the end goal of their existence but rather as a method for developing in themselves an attunement with the spiritual world, greater obedience to God, and a love for others. The development of moral and religious character was understood in much the same way as sports; to get better you need a good coach, a few heroes to look up to, and lots and lots of practice.
Sloterdijk understands humans as “practicing animals” that have the ability to “be more” than they are through the process of self-discipline. Yes, he acknowledges, we all have certain starting points determined by our biology or situations we are born into, but these starting points are not excuses to stay there. As we overcome old habits with new and better habits, we make things that previously seemed impossible for us become more and more probable. What we might have thought we could never do when we were young and untrained, we can now, in some senses, make look easy now.
Through this lens that Sloterdjick provides, we can see Lent as an intentional season of self-discipline in which we become more like Christ through emulating Christ’s own time in the desert. Often our life is so familiar to us and filled with such routine that we forget all of the choices we make that keep it that way. Our Lenten commitments, in the form of new habits and practices, make us more aware of the life we choose to live every day. As we build on how we have grown in the past, we are opened up to more and more ways of loving our neighbors each year.
These chosen disruptions — our own small emulations of journeys into the desert — create the space for the grace that change our lives.
Where is the Grace in Lent?
Lent is truly a season of preparation. But we would never say that we are preparing to run a race and never make a commitment to the habits and practices that would allow us to run the race. Lent is not Lent unless accompanied with acts of preparation.
In the past, I’ve opted out of Lenten commitments or deprioritized them with the understanding that God’s grace is sufficient — and it is. A strict fast will never earn God’s favor or love. But it is also possible to experience God’s grace through making a commitment challenging enough that it is only by God’s grace that you can keep it.
Timothy King formerly served as Sojourners’ Chief Strategy Officer and now writes and farms in New Hampshire. You can read his thoughts on farming, food, and faith at his blog, Almost Home.