Some years ago, I told my spiritual advisor that I was prepared to undertake any Lenten fasting or penance he suggested. I felt noble as I made my valiant offer, but this wise and holy priest didn't act impressed.
He just looked at me and asked, "Is there anyone in your life that you struggle to love?"
Pow! The question hit home. I immediately pictured a family member whom I was finding it hard to treat in a loving, gentle way. When I told Father, he responded: "Then as part of your Lent, make it your aim to shower this person with kindness and love."
Here was a call to a different kind of fasting. I was to give up criticalness and pettiness and detach from my selfishness and self-justification; then I could get creative in showing this relative some acts of kindness. It was a call to conversion.
My resolution got put to the test when it fell upon me to give the same person driving lessons. One outing in particular showed me how unloving I could be. I was shouting and criticizing, when 1 Corinthians 13:4 came running into my mind: "Love is patient, love is kind." It was an eye-opening moment of grace.
Again and again, I caught myself slipping into unkind speech. Often, I had to ask forgiveness. Through my "fasting," though, I came to treat and view this person with love. With God's help, an experience that had the potential to kill our relationship ended up as a positive, bonding way to build it.
A Matter of the Heart. This expanded and deepened my understanding of the Lenten fast. I follow the church's guidelines for fasting and abstinence, of course, and still try to give up some kind of food or drink. But I see now that the call to fast encompasses more, and that its goal is inner change. As the Catechism puts it: "Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, 'sackcloth and ashes,' fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion" (1430).
Fasting is an outward sign and means of interior conversion. It helps to cut the ties of unhealthy attachments in our hearts. And so, as we consider what to give up this Lent, the first question is, "What am I attached to?"
For many of us, the attachment is food or drink. It can therefore be most beneficial to give up desserts, refrain from second helpings, or make some other extra sacrifice in this area. One Lent, I gave up my Southern wife's sweet iced tea and drank water with all my meals instead. Sound easy? Well, as St. John of the Cross observed, even a little attachment can affect the heart:
It makes little difference whether a bird is tied by a thin thread or by a cord. Even if it is tied by a thread, the bird will be held bound just as surely as if it were tied by a cord. (The Ascent of Mount Carmel)
A Family Project. We have an obligation to help our children develop temperance and self-control, and Lent is a tremendous opportunity to grow in these virtues together. However, getting the whole family motivated to "detach" and fast can be a huge challenge. My wife and I have known more than one family Lent that was a real flop—a season that came and went with no good fruit to show for it.
After some trial and error, we discovered that advance planning makes a big difference. And so, after discussing and praying about Lent as a couple, we begin talking about it with the children during our family meal time. We start a week or two ahead, with a goal of choosing something to give up—both as a family and as individuals—by Ash Wednesday. We put our resolutions down in writing and tape them to the refrigerator.
Not rushing resolutions through at the last minute has definitely increased our ability to plan and stick with creative ways of "detaching." Try it with your family, and you may be surprised at how many ideas emerge as you talk over "what are we attached to?" Here are a few simple examples.
Unplug and disconnect. In our media-saturated society, cutting back on media consumption is an obvious choice. For me, this effort has centered on my attachment to reading the daily newspaper. This used to be the first thing I did when I woke up in the morning. Then one Lent, I "fasted" from reading the paper altogether. Though I kept informed in other ways, giving up this daily routine almost killed me! Ever since, however, spending time with the Lord in prayer is the first thing I do each day.
My wife and children give up TV during Lent, except on weekends. They've done this for about twenty years, and we've reaped the benefits: We watch less TV the rest of the year, our minds are more focused on the Lord, the kids' grades have gone up, and we've found better ways to have fun together as a family.
For some of our children, giving up computer games for Lent has been an exercise in detachment. Other possibilities to consider: music, radio, movies, and (in the "communications" department) blogging, text-messaging, and talking on the phone.
Time share. My wife is a registered nurse and works part-time in a psychiatric hospital. Like many busy people, she experiences a tendency to cling to her personal time and space. Recognizing this, she often chooses to "fast" from her own time by making an effort to invite other families or single people to dinner once a week during Lent.
Marie's decision to practice hospitality in this way has been a blessing to our entire family. It calls us all to get out of ourselves and reach out to others. And over the years, many good relationships have developed over that Lenten dinner table.
Set the alarm. I attended a retreat where the speaker made the point that Jesus got up "long before dawn" (Mark 1:35) to spend time with his Father. "Notice," he said, "the Bible doesn't say that Jesus rolled over!"
That Lent, I resolved to fast from pushing the snooze button. Detaching from my usual pattern of over-sleeping, I got up earlier every day to pray. My wife soon joined me, and this became a lifelong habit. Some of our children say that our example is one of the reasons why they themselves have a daily personal prayer time.
Give it away. One good Lenten form of fasting is to rid ourselves of possessions—not just the junk that every household accumulates, but also some of the material things to which we are attached.
I love my books. Last year during Lent, I boxed up a large number of them and gave them away. Marie cleared out her wardrobe and donated to charity what seemed like half her closet. My ten-year-old daughter put some of her toys in a yard sale and gave the money to a friend in need.
Get quiet. Some friends of ours see Lent as a time to fast from activity and noise. Once a week, they pile into their van and drive thirty minutes to the nearest adoration chapel. How long they spend there depends on how restless the younger children get, but all are learning how to practice silence! Everyone enjoys these quiet visits with Jesus—and the parents get a break from the noise.
Get moving. Who doesn't have to fight the temptation to be a couch potato? Laziness has traditionally ruled this area of my life, subverting my half-hearted attempts at physical exercise. As Lent was approaching about six years ago, I resolved to start a simple twenty-minute routine: physical exercises every two days, jogging on the alternate days.
This was really hard for me, and I was afraid I lacked the willpower. Turning to the Lord, I felt that he told me, "Offer up the suffering for a deeper conversion for yourself and others." That was just the motivation I needed.
What Will It Be? As we consider how to fast this Lent, let's not forget to call on the Holy Spirit. With his guidance, we and our families can make wise and fruitful choices. With his power at work in us, we can stick to them!
So once again, I'm asking myself, "What am I attached to?" Hmmm. . . . People have told me that I can be opinionated and slow to listen to others—maybe I should fast from expressing my opinions for forty days. . . .
Now there's a resolution that only grace can help me keep!
Dan Almeter is a professional counselor in Augusta, Georgia. He and his wife, Marie, have six children and two grandchildren.