Depending on your perspective, Lenten fasts can seem trivial. What’s the point, exactly, of giving up dessert or alcohol for six weeks? (Is your real goal to lose weight?) Forgoing Facebook or Twitter for Lent may seem worthwhile—but if you return after Easter, what is the lasting impact? Besides, aren’t these fasts supposed to be spiritual disciplines? How do they honor God?
Proponents of the liturgical year point out that there are other ways to mark the Lenten season. Christians can “add in” disciplines as easily as they can take them out. The traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving rightly orient our relationship to God (in prayer), ourselves (through fasting), and our neighbor (by serving the poor). While such disciplines should hardly be reserved solely for Lent, the season’s self-denial invites a period of focused self-examination, a chance to, in some small ways, restructure our daily routines.
Normally, Lenten disciplines come with a time stamp. We count down the approximately 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter knowing that, surely, we can grit our teeth and bear going without caffeine or Instagram for six weeks.
The pandemic, however, feels like a never-ending penitential season, with forced fasting, imposed self-denial, and plenty of unanswered prayers. We’ve had to give up meeting together as believers in person, we’ve given up the easy fellowship of a lunch with friends, or coffee with coworkers, or date-night dinners out. Many have had to tighten their belts because of a job loss. At-risk individuals have forgone almost all physical contact in order to stay safe. We’ve waited in line to get into stores and gone online for everything else. The hope offered by vaccines has been tempered by concern over new viral strains and a growing awareness that COVID-19 will stay with us, like the seasonal flu.
So what are we to do with the interminable Lent that is this pandemic? It may be advisable to renounce our traditional renouncing this year, instead devoting this Lent to self-examination. The things whose loss we mourn—hugs and shared meals, going to school, easy trips to get groceries—are all good things (indeed, their goodness is even more apparent now that we’ve experienced their absence). What does our longing for their return reveal about our attachment to them?
A few days into Lent, I often wonder whether anyone cares if I skip lunch or eschew coffee. No one else is affected by my choice, and unless I confess, no one will know if I cheated. More pressing is the sense that these mundane decisions make no difference to my spiritual well-being. It is likely a sign of my implicit dualism that I so easily regard the physical disciplines of Lent as less meaningful (to myself or to God) than more recognizably “spiritual” practices.
But choosing to deny my fairly basic bodily desires, even for a few weeks, is part of a much greater discipline that all Christians must practice—the ordo caritatis, or “ordering one’s loves.” At its core, ordering our loves is simply the work of rooting out idolatry, of realizing where we give primacy of place to things other than God. Because of the imprecision around the word love in English (where I can say I love my husband and I love burritos in the same breath), I find desire to be a more useful term. By ordering our desires, we examine in a more a nuanced way what it is we want and how our habits may be impacting the health of our souls.
Embedded in the ordo caritatis is the idea that we desire many things that are good, and the desire for good things is not inherently sinful. Our desires become sin when we mis-order them; when we love the good gifts more than the Giver, or when our unexamined desires end up determining our decisions. Giving something up for Lent—whether it’s chocolate, or alcohol, or watching TV—does not deny the goodness of these things. But such Lenten fasts do require us to practice intentionality, to examine our habits, and to practice disciplining desires of all kinds. To choose what to give up or take on for Lent is to choose how to spend our time and attention, and to notice what desires we unthinkingly and regularly feed. Such self-reflection leads to making more intentional decisions (at least for six weeks!), rather than letting ourselves be governed by our habits.
Any love of good things—community, romance, stability, wealth, beauty, status, achievements of all kinds—can easily become a substitute for better things, namely deeper submission to the God “in whose service is perfect freedom,” (as the Book of Common Prayer puts it). Our desires easily intertwine; we eat or drink when we are lonely, or turn to fiction (whether on TV or in the pages of a book) as a way of escaping the difficult work of reality. The very physicality of Lenten disciplines—their connection to our bodies and to our habits, can be useful places to practice self-awareness and self-discipline. These fasts are not abstract exercises in self-reflection, but very real explorations of how much I value my nightly social media scroll, how incredibly difficult it might be to resist turning on the TV, or how grumpy I am when denied something I typically have on a daily basis.
In this ongoing pandemic, some of our losses have helped us to see our own needs more clearly. We’ve grown to cherish the importance of meeting together as the body of Christ. We understand intuitively that community mediated through a screen is not the same as being together in person. But with other losses (might we call them fasts this Lent?) we can see the ways we have mis-ordered our lives and routines, directing our desires toward unholy ends. We have desired our own security and comfort rather than trusting in the Lord. We have found our purpose in friendships, in to-do lists, and in busy days instead of in Christ’s love for us. We have sought instant gratification rather than the slow-growing fruit of the Spirit.
We can use this pandemic-driven Lent to examine our own desires in light of what we have lost. Remember that in Christ our losses become our gains (Luke 9:25; Phil. 3:7–8). All we have comes from the Lord. If some good gifts have been taken away in this season, what might our grief reveal about our mis-ordered desires? And can we find ways to practice gratitude for what remains?
Kerilyn Harkaway-Krieger is assistant professor of English and director of First-Year Writing at Gordon College, Wenham, MA.