During the season of Lent, many people choose to participate in some sort of “Lenten practice”. These actions can be roughly generalized into two groups: acts of avoidance or acts of participation. This can range from giving up your favourite snack, your favourite TV show, or intentionally engaging in some charitable activities. You choose your own course, and then you try your best to follow it. What is there to talk about? Isn't it about the sacrificing something that I like, or doing good deeds and offering them up as sacrifices? I contend that it is the disposition of our hearts behind these Lenten acts that is the most important. In particular, we need to be discerning when it comes to both choosing and participating in one's Lenten practices. How so?
The easiest way to take a short cut is to give up something that I do not really want, like, or need. In my case, it would be giving up sweets when I don't even have a sweet tooth. To be fair, it can be intimidating to give up something that one holds dear to one's heart. This points to the key issue at hand: attachment. How attached am I to these things? Why am I so attached to it? Am I trying to justify my attachments?
Compensation can also happen. I can certainly give up my beloved salted mixed nuts, but I may unknowingly find myself compensating for it with other salty snacks. Such replacements defeat the purpose of the initial relinquishing. Some may approach this as a kind of personal challenge: Let's see if I can abstain from meat or not smoke for the entire Lenten season. I certainly hope that the goal is not to test the strength of our own willpower, or how far I can go. That is not the true spirit of Christian penance.
Others may choose to do something they have always wanted to do, but have never had enough motivation before. This might be helping out at the soup kitchen, or it could be a Scout-like “one good deed a day”. This is a decent start, but what happens after Lent? Do I give up doing these good deeds because “it was only for Lent”? Do I try to incorporate them into my regular schedule?
We also need to be realistic. If we are aiming for the moon and do not get there, we become frustrated and discouraged. If we backslide, we may even decide to abandon our good resolutions altogether. Is this a matter of God not helping us out? Or did not put in enough effort? Or it was simply because we did not know ourselves and our situation well enough? This brings us to the most important point: are these Lenten practices bringing me closer to the Lord?
We can forego things in life that should theoretically remind us of our mortality and dependence on God. We can also do things that should theoretically bring us closer to the poor, abandoned and neglected Christ. These are all fine and dandy, but we would never know whether the theoretical translates into the practical if we do not examine our experiences of it. We can be abstaining from meat on Fridays, but it is fruitless if it leads to our grumbling or bragging. Our Lenten practices would mean nothing if they did not concretely draw us towards the Lord. Otherwise, this would be just another unreflective activity, a mere test of will, or a purposeless beating up of ourselves.
The Lord works with us in different ways; he calls us to different paths so that we may journey towards him. It would do us well to reflect purposefully about our life and its particular circumstances, so that we might better dispose ourselves in the hands of God this Lent.