By Dixie Dillon Lane
My daughter and I were on a walk the other day when she sighed all of a sudden. “I really don’t like Lent,” she said.
“I don’t like Lent either,” I replied.
“Why not?” she asked.
This got me thinking. Do I just not want to give up chocolate? Or do I not fully understand the importance of the feast-fast cycles in the liturgical calendar? No—I definitely need a break from my daily chocolate routine right about now, and I love the wisdom reflected in the liturgical year.
No, it is the emotional complexity of Lent that sometimes gets to me. This is largely because Lent has a way of tempting me to prioritize pride over humility, which is exactly the opposite of what it is meant to do. For example, the first time that I was pregnant during Lent, I would often say to myself something like, “That pregnant lady over there is abstaining from meat this Friday, and she doesn’t seem to be on the verge of a total breakdown because of low protein. Why can’t I get it together?”
And then I would walk around all day snapping at my husband and others until I finally dissolved into tears because I Just Wasn’t Good Enough to fast or abstain from meat while pregnant. Or maybe God just didn’t love me enough to give me the grace to handle fasting while pregnant.
Of course, in reality the Church in the United States explicitly excuses pregnant and nursing mothers from fasting and abstinence. And not only was I pregnant, but I was quite sick for my entire pregnancy. But that wasn’t good enough for me: I had to do better than the Church asked of me. I had to be like “that lady over there.” And when I found that I couldn’t be, I figured the reason was either that I was just very, very bad or that God didn’t love me. In other words, that I was special.
And so my Lenten penance, instead of provoking trust in God, manifested itself mainly as a temptation to the sin of pride.
Have you ever held onto a penance for yourself instead of giving it over to God?
Too often, I think, we base our Lenten practices on what others expect us to give up rather than what God may wish to change within our hearts. This temptation seems to be especially present for women, whose physical biology sometimes makes the traditional Lenten penances of men unsuitable. Although women often do benefit from fasting, abstinence, asceticism, and other traditional penances, it is also the case that in some stages of female life, physical penances, especially, can be counterproductive in individual cases, as they can compound the already-present monthly and seasonal (pregnancy, pregnancy loss, and postpartum seasons, for example) suffering that many women experience.
In light of this, it may help to remember that the best Lenten sacrifices are the realistic ones. These are the ones that successfully help us say to Jesus on the Cross, Teach me how to be more like You, rather than, Help me to impress my friends and keep up with my husband with my fasting. Oftentimes this means accepting in humility that our Lenten sacrifices should not be based on what will feel most punitive, but on what will best enable us to turn away from self-love and toward loving our neighbors.
This sometimes means making a positive commitment that we can support by meeting our needs, rather than by clinging to a form of mortification that may be more suited to the male body or a different stage of life. In this way, we can grow in love and in loving behavior toward others during Lent, rather than risking becoming a penance for others through our lack of charity or, indeed, as in the case of my foolish pregnant Friday abstinence, actually doing ourselves harm.
Some examples to consider:
- Instead of fasting while pregnant, breastfeeding, or ill: resolve to pay attention to better nutrition so that you don't snap at your family due to hunger and low blood sugar. Let your need for food teach you humility so that you can then serve others in the primary vocation to which God is calling you, whatever that may be.
- Similarly, rather than giving up coffee and becoming insufferable because of it: commit to only drinking coffee you have made at home, and donate the money saved to the local food pantry. Or consider weaning off of coffee gradually during Lent, or switching to half-caff or drinking your coffee black.
- Rather than getting up early to exercise while already sleep-deprived: commit to resisting complaining about your body, especially to your husband, friends, and children. You can also commit to taking a gentle daily after-dinner walk four nights a week, if you like. But don’t use Lent as an excuse to hate your body or grow in vanity.
- Instead of resolving to take your young children to Mass every day: commit to stopping by church or an Adoration chapel with the kids for just a few minutes whenever you happen to drive past. You can leave as soon as the first toddler meltdown begins. After all, if you exhaust yourself with wrangling the kids at Mass every morning, will you really have the emotional bandwidth to treat your loved ones, co-workers, and friends with patience for the rest of the day? Another option would be to try for Saturday morning, instead, when you can leave the littlest ones home with Daddy or all of you can go as a family.
In short, while mortifying the flesh is a meaningful and valuable practice and we must obey the fasting and abstinence requirements of the Church, many women today are already excessively punishing their bodies and ignoring many of their needs. In these cases, in order to effect positive spiritual change, we need to mortify our pride more than our bodies. So I encourage all of us to ask ourselves this year, Will this penance help me honor God and live my vocation well, or is it an occasion of pride and poor stewardship of my body and my emotions? If your Lenten penances are in conflict with your ability to behave yourself well and feel secure in God's love for you, they may not be working properly.
So give up sweets, by all means, but also make sure you get enough sleep and enough to eat and drink, and maybe give yourself some leeway on chocolate this year if you are pregnant. Focus instead on giving a genuine smile to everyone you meet and on praying for those who are unkind to you. And if you need a cup of coffee to facilitate that, go right ahead.
Dixie Dillon Lane is a historian, essayist, and homeschooling mother who lives in the Shenandoah Valley. She holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Notre Dame and is an Associate Editor at Hearth & Field. More of her writing can be found via her substack newsletter, The Hollow.