As someone who has tended toward scrupulosity in the past, I’ve found it helpful to distinguish what the Church actually asks of us during Lent (fasting-if-you-can, prayer, and almsgiving) from popular tradition (“giving up X for Lent”). For the sake of not getting lost in my own thoughts, I wanted to put together a little Lenten reference for myself so that I wouldn’t continue going around in circles on this every year.
For those who cannot observe food-related penance, the Church’s guidelines on fasting can be challenging. When I blogged about this a few years ago, I encouraged us to take St. John Chrysostom’s words to heart: “He, therefore, who eats and cannot fast, let him display richer almsgiving, let him pray more, let him have a more intense desire to hear divine words.”
I had occasion to revisit that post earlier this week when my friend Grace crowdsourced some suggestions for ways to fast that don’t involve food. Our friend Leah chimed in with wonderful words from St. Francis de Sales, who exhorted pregnant women not to fast during Lent: “You will not lack mortifications for the heart, which is the only holocaust God desires from you.”
I cannot say anything that St. John & St. Francis haven’t said better, but I do think it’s important that they specifically do not counsel us to take up alternative fasts. Let every meal be a reminder that you do not “earn” the grace of God by being sufficiently penitential.
At the heart of fasting is the premise that emptying oneself provides more room for God. As such, the point of fasting is to call you to prayer. After all, hunger pangs are very effective at reminding you all day that it’s Good Friday and by the way God died for you. The key, then, is to observe Lent in such a way that a) you remember God many times a day and b) no one else will notice you are doing penance.
There are many good ideas in Grace’s thread about how to apply St. John Chrysostom’s advice: may the one who cannot fast pray more. Many of them are effective precisely because they are not noticeable to others: abstaining from jaywalking is a great way to build a reminder of God’s presence into the life of a busy city pedestrian, as is abstaining from interrupting for your local extrovert. Other good suggestions included observing the “heroic minute” (aka no more snooze button) and making prayer the first thing you do before you grab your smartphone. If you’re Very Online, your conscience will probably know exactly what’s getting in the way of your prayer—so every itch to tweet or desire to put in your earphones can become a moment to lift your eyes to God.
And of course, while daily prayer should be a part of our lives throughout the year, Lent is an especially good time to commit to a more substantial practice. You and God will know what that should be for you, but if you want something structured, I highly recommend the Memento Mori devotional.
This is the one that tends to go by the wayside: the one who cannot fast, let him display richer almsgiving. There will be some obvious ways to put this into practice (increase your tithe, donate to the annual Lenten Appeal), but how can you invite God into your almsgiving? If abstaining from, say, jaywalking lets Him nudge you a few times a day to wait with Him at street corners, how can you put yourself into the position to let Him nudge you into almsgiving too?
Carry cash, and give to those who ask of you. It’s that simple—God will provide opportunities to give alms on those same street corners, but you won’t be able to cooperate with Him unless you are in a position to do so. Other possibilities: contribute to all those medical GoFundMes you see as you scroll through Twitter, but do so anonymously. If you’re strapped for cash (and actually, even if you’re not), make a point of giving your time. Resolve to give away, say, 15 minutes of your day, and God will provide the opportunity to do so. Resist the urge to multitask when a friend wants to have a long, involved phone call. Seize every opportunity to listen.
Trust in the providence of God
If you think of Lent as entirely a question of deprivation of what the world offers, rather than an embrace of everything God has on offer, your eyes will still be trained on your own desires. If you think of Lent as an opportunity to empty yourself, your eyes will slowly drift up to God as they have fewer distractions to alight on down here. So, there is only one rule for these coming weeks: keep your eyes on God’s activity, not on your own.
One year I didn’t know what to do for Lent so I said Lord, you be in charge of my penance. Guess what? He humiliated me every day for 40 days!!! Point being, God will provide, and he’s the one you should ask about this. It’s easy to agonize over the form of your fasting, but it can really easily become yet another way to make Lent focused on yourself. The good news is that discovering our own weakness and humbly acknowledging it before God is the whole point of Lent. So, whatever you do, don’t worry about it too much. God is coming to save you either way.