The season of Lent is underway in traditional churches, along with the tired jokes about doing without chocolate and other small excesses for the next six weeks. While giving up something can always be a useful exercise at any time, helping me see where my attachments lie and how they shape my behaviors in ways I may not be noticing, still: what, six weeks from now, will have been accomplished by forgoing chocolate, especially since a return to enjoying chocolate is most certainly coming with the arrival of Easter?
As I understand it, the primary purpose of Lent is to provide a time of preparation for the life-altering events of Easter. And that preparation specifically takes the form of clearing out, of making space, of introducing room into my life and experience in places where there presently is no opening for anything, much less something transformative. The deeper message of Easter cannot be taken in by simply squeezing it in a spare place, a gap in my routines that I have yet to fill, an idle moment. Rather, if I am truly to open myself to the meaning of life and love’s triumph over death, then I will have to set about making room somewhere—and that means getting rid of some significant component of my life, not just dropping chocolate for a time.
Instead of asking, with a heavy sigh, “well, what do I give up this year?” I move into this season of preparation by asking, “where can I introduce more openness, more flexibility, more silence, more freedom into my days?” then I am likely to find something far more meaningful than chocolate that can be let go, even let go to the extent that I will not pick it up once again when Easter arrives.
I decided to give up what spiritual author Henri Nouwen calls self-rejection for Lent. My chronic self-doubts, the inner voice of criticism, my tendency to believe that whatever I have done is not enough or not good enough: all that is being shut down for the next six weeks. It will leave quite an open space in my mind and heart and spirit, far more than chocolate has ever taken up. By the time Lent is done, I may not miss what I gave up at all.