“Not giving up something for Lent” has become the cliché response to generations of Lenten abstinence, which itself has become a byword for spiritual barrenness and gaming. Better, the logic goes, to take on some new, positive activity for Lent and let the chocolate and booze take care of itself.
I hear those thoughts, and know they are heartfelt, but they leave me wanting more. I suppose I’m unhappy about ending a bad habit (or taking on a good one) for a particular time only to retrieve or abandon it when the moment has passed. I believe in personal progress (even as my faith in social progress wanes) and to lay down the bad and take up the good is key to that progress. I want to be a better person, and want it to stick. A time limit seems like too much of a concession — even New Year’s Resolutions expect more — and we make so many ready concessions to our human condition.
There is a different way of looking at abstaining, of course. There is a right time and a wrong time to do something, say like having firm words of guidance with a friend. You wait until she can hear them with the intended spirit; at the wrong time they only sound like scorn, and not at all like care. But you do care so you wait for the right time. It’s also possible that some of our Lenten habits train us to live with less so that we are spared the sharpness of deprivation when it inevitably comes. These can be grouped respectively as prudence and fortitude, both quaint, old-fashioned virtues that are long overdue for rehabilitation.
And disciplines of abstinence are not all hardship. I’m a vegetarian and benefit personally and materially from Christian abstinence. Look to any country with a strong Eastern or Oriental Orthodox background and you find a food culture that accommodates “fasting food” which is almost always vegetarian and usually vegan. (Washington, D.C.’s many Ethiopian restaurants are a godsend for vegans; no explanation necessary.) But I don’t see my meat-free, nearly egg-free and increasingly dairy-free diet as a hardship. It’s just how I live now, and the idea of eating animals makes me deeply unhappy. That’s why others won’t take a drink. There are a lot of widely desired but individually disliked habits out there; but is that enough?
Like many other people, I’ve read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, her first book. Since then, there’s been a second book, countless interviews and videos and now a series on Netflix. Thrift stores are groaning under the discards, good and bad. Some people like her ideas, others hate them, but I sense misunderstandings in the analysis. Perhaps you’ve heard that she’s into minimalism (not really), making you fold your t-shirts like an A-frame chalet (really quite neat) and that your possessions should “spark joy.” In a nutshell, rather that setting arbitrary goals about what you should own, Kondo asks her participants to know what they want and remove everything else. She starts with the goal in sight, but it’s not a goal she sets. Most notably, once you take her cure, you’re freed from the endless rounds of ineffective tidying. You are supposed to come through her process better than you were before, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime activity. She says in so many words, you can be free of clutter. Free as in freedom, and not only free as in absence. Lent and its disciplines of abstinence tell you that you can be free of something, but only you, before the Eternal God, knows what that is, and from it free to be someone new.
But there’s the rub, too. Could you change in a particular way, for life? It’s hard to imagine voluntarily doing anything for the last time. After all, death will stop our habits good and bad. Perhaps saying — and meaning — never again seems too much like giving up on life. But don’t confuse the fear of missing out of something with the fear of missing out of everything. Life edited opens up possibilities, and room for new life, like spring shoots, to fill in the spaces.
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(The Rev.) Scott Wells