“I no longer think in terms of ‘giving things up’ for Lent,” she said. “I think of Lent as a time of adding things to my life.”
This conversation took place some 25 years ago, but I have never forgotten it. The woman continued, “Most years, I try to go on a spiritual retreat during Lent.” Other years, she would pick out a book to read during lent, a book offering spiritual depth and wisdom.
Of course, to make time for the retreat, to make time to read, she might have to give up some other things, such as time watching TV. But her whole approach to Lent was transformed, she said, when her focus shifted to what she was adding to her life, not to what she was giving up.
It was years later that I discovered the same notion in the Rule of Benedict. To be sure, “giving things up” was a major part of Lenten practice in a Benedictine monastery: “Each should withhold from his body something of food, drink and sleep, refraining from talk and mirth, and awaiting holy Easter with the joy of spiritual longing” (RB 49). But the same chapter also calls for adding things: “Let us add something to the usual measure of our service: such as private prayers….”
Toward the beginning of the chapter on Lent, Benedict urges his monks not only to “refrain from all sin,” but also to “give ourselves to prayer with tears, to holy reading, to compunction of heart and abstinence.” Note that abstinence is the last thing in this list, not the first.
Of course, “giving things up” for Lent has its place. As Joan Chittester, OSB, writes in her commentary on this chapter of the Rule, “Lent is the time for trimming the soul and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod.”
What will you do this Lent to scrape the sludge off your soul? Giving things up can certainly help us re-focus. But don’t think only about giving things up. What are you adding to your life this Lent? Consider more time for prayer. Rich spiritual reading. Time for meditation and journaling. A spiritual retreat, with others or alone. Even something as simple as a quiet walk by yourself, once a week, in the beauty of God’s creation, can be a meaningful spiritual practice.
What will you add to your life this Lent?
The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21
(New York: Crossroad, 2010), 219.