The Fasting Isn’t The Most Important Thing

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Even the desert isn’t completely devoid of life. Photo by Moyan_Brenn, via Flickr

In February of 1995 I crashed over the edge of an emotional cliff when the relationship I was involved in ended without warning. (Actually, there was plenty of warning, I was just too naïve, i.e. clueless, to recognize the signs.)

The months leading up to that emotional cliff, I was as far from my faith as I ever got in my life. Which—let’s be honest–wasn’t very far. Still, part of my recovery involved a conscious turning back to God, to the neglected spiritual core of who I was.

It was an awful semester, and when Lent came around, the one thing I knew was that I did not need to give anything up, because I already had. I’d been in my Lenten desert for several weeks already, and forcing food down my throat and concentrating on my studies and my practicing required every ounce of spiritual discipline I possessed at that point in my life.

Great-grandma's gown, Amy's blanketTwelve years later, I was happily married to a man whose family always gave up sweets, and come hell or high water his family was going to do the same. I also had a newborn with what, at least at that time (though it doesn’t anymore), felt like a devastating diagnosis: Down syndrome. My world was reeling when Lent began that year.

5 ½ weeks postpartum, Julianna got sick. As in, near death sick. As in, on a ventilator with oxygen saturation plunging to the 40s sick.

Let’s do the math: recovering from a C-section + grieving the Ds diagnosis + postpartum hormones + child near death + oh yes….Lent.

There was a day, that first week, when my mother took me and toddler Alex to the grocery store, and he kept pointing to the empty spot in the van and shouting, “Beebee! Beebee!” It almost undid me. When we finished shopping at Aldi, the DQ sign across the street was like a beacon. “Let’s go get ice cream,” I said. And despite being the poster child for Catholic guilt, I felt not one twinge for breaking my Lenten fast.

Today is Opening Day for Lent. All over the world people are asking each other, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Even people who hardly ever think about the faith at other times. And too many of us who do practice the faith approach this season with a deep breath and gritted teeth and an unspoken thought: Just get through it.

Cover Art: Bringing Lent To LifeBut “giving up” is a really limited view of Lent. If you spend the next 6 ½ weeks dwelling on how miserable you are, thinking the greater the misery, the greater the righteousness, you’re missing the point. Sacrifice that does not see beyond one’s empty stomach or missing expletives is not focused in the right place.

Lent is a time to set aside the distractions that keep us from seeing what’s most important. It’s a time to clean house, spiritually speaking–to reorganize and make everything homey and sparkly and welcoming. And although it’s hard work, there can be satisfaction in it—perhaps even pleasure–if you approach it with a good attitude.

Last year I felt overwhelmed by life. Lent turned into a sort of tug-of-war between my earthly obligations and the call to scour the spiritual floors, with me the rope fraying in the middle. This year is blessedly un-dramatic….so far, anyway. And so I recommit to Lent…to the search for the Godly within me.

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5 thoughts on “The Fasting Isn’t The Most Important Thing

  1. Lisa Simmons

    Kathleen, that was beautifully said! I have said as much in the 32 years of marriage and raising kids. There were Lents that were difficult with illness and even dying going on in my extended family, I had no patience for ‘giving up’ chocolate or whatever. Cleaning up our spiritual selves to welcome a guest – Jesus, has so much more meaning to me and to my family. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Yes! Last year when 4th of July was on a Friday, I’d planned on offering up something (so we could eat the steaks DH was grilling), but forgot what it was because I woke up to an endometriosis attack the likes of which I hadn’t had in years… and I could not get through to my doctor to get some pain medication (I’m allergic to most OTC stuff). I was in so much pain that I’d forgotten what I’d promised to give up, ate the steak because it didn’t require me getting up from my chair to find something separate, and with my second bite of said steak, I realized God had already hand-picked my Friday penance for me. This is why the sick are not being wimps when they take the medical exemption to fast from fasting. [Says the recently dx’d hypoglycemic who totally messed up healthy eating patterns on Ash Wednesday, so take it all with a grain of salt…]

  3. Beautifully said and I so agree.
    And yes, sometimes life give us plenty of penance without us adding to it. When the sexual abuse crisis in the church first hit the news, I was such a mess. My spiritual director actually told me to not give anything up for Lent. He said I already had a heavy cross.
    “Search for the Godly within me.” Love that.

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