I’ve known a number of non-Christians who regularly “gave things up for Lent.”
The practice seems to be something people can find helpful irrespective of their religious position. Even during the most feckless and insouciant period of my youth, this yearly season of abstinence gave me a sense of stability that I valued enough to make caffeine-deprivation headaches and alcohol-withdrawal sugar cravings worthwhile.
And now, while life with two children and a physician wife who gets paged in the middle of the night makes a caffeine-fast seem unthinkable, and I drink so seldom that giving it up would be meaningless, I still look forward to taking on the annual discipline.
Today, perhaps in an effort mitigate the off-putting penitential pong of traditional Lenten observance, it is fashionable to say that we “take things on” for Lent rather than “giving things up.” And I do that, too: additional devotional reading, more rigorous spiritual practice, and more dedicated service have all found a place in my Lenten discipline.
But they cannot replace the salutary effects of giving something up.
As a Third Order Franciscan, I’m supposed to include regular self-denial—and its close relative, simplicity—in my way of life. But it took me a long time to figure out what exactly constitutes “self-denial,” since just about anything I can think of doing without is bad for me, anyway.
If saying “No” to something makes us better, stronger, happier people, how is that self-denial?
On the other hand, if self-denial is doesn’t lead to self-improvement, isn’t it simply self-torture? Surely this practice, common to so many spiritual paths, isn’t rooted in self-loathing?
The secret, I think, is to be clear about the distinction between the self and the Self–the “false self” of ego-delusion and the “true Self” at our core that is beyond craving and attachment. When we practice false-self-denial, we nurture the true Self.
For instance, this year I have given up audiobooks—my constant companion while commuting, cleaning the house, washing the dishes, putting away laundry and other “mindless” tasks. And yes, I am jonesing for some fiction. But I have been filling those times with mindfulness exercises, interior prayer and educational podcasts I used to enjoy before becoming addicted to made-up stories.
Don’t misunderstand me—I’m fully on board with Jane Austen, Kate DiCamillo and Joslyn Hamilton in their insistence on the absolute indispensability of fiction. But when a good and needful thing starts crowding out other good and needful things, you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns.
The point of self-denial is not self-punishment, but freedom. Our attachments become despots over us, and undermine all our progress. Giving something up for Lent loosens the hold that the things we are attached to have over us, leaving us more free for self-realization and spiritual growth.
It also enables us to view people and situations more clearly, without the filter of our addictions. (For instance, I no longer wait impatiently for the children to be in bed so I can fire up a novel on my iPod.)
“Self-Denial…is the discipline of saying “No” to oneself by putting God first…We also focus on eliminating the ways we may manipulate others to our own ends…Our cluttered lives…can interfere in our relationships with God and our brothers and sisters. We are called to a life of simplicity, eliminating those aspects of ourselves and our lives which prevent our full expression of God’s love.”
Craving and attachment (to borrow some Buddhist terms) keep us enslaved to our appetites rather than our hungers; they make us, as a colleague of mine puts it, “trade in what we want most for what we want now.”
Going without something to which we have become accustomed makes us more available to the promptings of the Spirit and more free to respond to them. Because if attachments take deep root in us, and we look to them to find “peace such as the world cannot give,” not only will we be disappointed, but we will drag our world down with us as we attempt to wrest happiness from things, starving the Self to glut the self.
“And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”
 Rule of the Third Order of St. Francis
 John 14:27