Giving up chocolate is a fall-back Lenten practice for many Catholics, but after fasting from sugar for several Lents in a row, I always felt like I didn’t get much out of it. The Church doesn’t ask us to fast in order to lose weight or to make us miserable. When done right, fasting can free us from our idols, refocus us on Christ, and make us live more fully and intentionally.
With this in mind, I interviewed friends and asked them what things they have given up for Lent and how that fast was meaningful. I found their responses touched on some fundamental themes about our Lenten practices — looking at your own disciplines through these lenses might open up new ideas and approaches.
Time is a limited resource, and often at the end of the day we lament that we didn’t finish the things we wanted to get done. How many times have you said, “Where did the time go?”
During Lent in particular, the Church challenges us to make time for prayer. Personally, I know that I often get to the end of the day without praying. Instead of spending quality time with God, I end up squeezing in a few distracted minutes when I’m tired, putting prayer off until another day, or falling asleep in the middle.
I find that if I don’t make time for prayer, it doesn’t happen spontaneously. A number of my friends have solved this problem by fasting from time-consuming habits in order to make time what really matters: our relationship with God.
Meghan K., a teacher in Texas, fasted from hitting the snooze button in the morning. She said that giving up this habit “made me more intentional in my decisions while also using my time more wisely.” She used the extra minutes in the morning for prayer. Instead of giving God a few distracted minutes at the end of the day or forgetting prayer entirely, Meghan was able to give God quality time each morning with this fast.
Levente B., a physics professor from Slovakia, has fasted from listening to the radio in the car. He said, “Especially on longer drives — like to work and back — I replace music with either silent contemplation or prayer, saying the rosary out loud, or listening to religious books or materials on CD. We have to remember that Lent is not so much about saying ‘no’ to the things that we give up, but that giving up those things allow us to say ‘yes’ to so many other things that bring us closer to and make us more like Christ.”
Kristin G., an engineer from Pittsburgh, gave up using the internet for entertainment, specifically on her phone. She said, “It helped to cut out easy distractions and to spend my time better.” When her phone dinged, it became a reminder to add prayer to her day instead jumping down the rabbit hole of the internet.
This year my husband, Damian, a computer programmer and writer, is giving up playing video games and plans to use that time to write his account of how he left the Church and eventually returned to Catholicism. He said this fast will give him back eight to ten hours of time per week. Reflecting on his journey is a spiritual exercise for himself, and he hopes to share his story with others who are asking the same questions that he has wrestled with over the years about Christianity, Jesus, and the Catholic Church.
It is easy to become enslaved to the things of this world: our phones, entertainment, shopping, food and drink, gossip. Fasting helps us reach for freedom from our addictions and idols, great and small. Forty days is time enough for us to regain control of our habits instead of having our habits control us.
The most difficult and fruitful fast I ever did was giving up gossiping about a math teacher whom I disliked as a teen. I realized that my negativity and frustration about one class was taking over my whole attitude and lasting long after the class was over. I recognized that it was making me hateful and angry, and my negativity fueled others to speak likewise. I had the daily compulsion to vent to my classmates about this teacher and realized that I couldn’t stop myself from chiming in when the topic turned towards the class.
By giving up speaking negatively about this woman and by walking away from conversations my classmates had about her, I changed my whole attitude and outlook. I no longer viewed myself as victim and my mood wasn’t determined by the class. Instead of spending my whole day fuming, I found peace and freedom that lasted long after Lent had ended.
My coworkers Maria and Eric, a gym and religion teacher, respectively, gave up the time vacuum of social media throughout the day. In the evening, they set a timer for 15 minutes to check their phones for messages. As a married couple, they could hold each other accountable, but also found that they had more time to spend together. Maria said that giving up the compulsion to constantly check her phone throughout the day gave her more time and more freedom.
My coworker gave up caffeine in all its forms. He said that the first week was very difficult, and it reminded him that the caffeine was really the one in control. By the end of the Lent though, he said that he no longer needed caffeine and didn’t even think about it. After Lent, he could enjoy a cup of coffee when he chose to have one, instead of needing cup after cup in order to get through the day.
Lis T., a pathology assistant graduate student in West Virginia, gave up makeup for Lent. She said, “I was terrified to show people my true face after hiding behind a painted mask for so long, but I couldn’t pretend that I was happy as a performer on this superficial stage. At first, I was crippled by insecurity, but I slowly began to believe that I had a lot to offer beyond my appearance; I was smart, funny, sincere, and capable of using God’s gifts for compassionate service with or without mascara. I learned that I was beautiful because of God’s signature on my life, not because of how I looked in the mirror. I became confident in the glow of God’s love within me, not in an illusion of my own creation.”
We spend so much of our lives going through the motions of daily life without even thinking — our morning routines, driving, working, cooking, and errands can all become a blur of mindlessness. St. Thérèse of Lisieux was famous for her “little way.” She said that every action, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, can be offered to God as a prayer if we do that action with love and with intentionality. Fasting is one practice that can make us intentional in our actions. By changing our routines and taking us out of our comfort zones, we can turn mindlessness into intentional prayer.
Mike D., a teacher from Chicago, gave up hot showers for Lent, but it was a practice that was only possible if he approached it with intentionality. He said, “it was almost impossible to forget. When I tried to give up other things that required more constant vigilance, I failed early and often and lost momentum. You don't ever end up accidentally taking a hot shower.”
This change of routine also made Mike intentional about everything else in his life: “It was a daily reminder of all the privileges I had that were so easy to take for granted. It reminded me to stand in solidarity with all those people who didn't have those privileges, whether it was hot water, economic security, a culturally dominant identity, etc.”
My friend’s dad Tony gave up teasing his wife, Kaylon, during Lent. Because it was part of his routine, this practice was difficult from him, but his wife loved it and found it relaxing. By being intentional in his actions and speech, Tony improved his relationship with his wife and created peace at home.
Another way to be intentional about your fast is to connect it to a purpose. A friend of mine gives up his regular Starbucks visit and then gives the money he would have spent on coffee to a charity. “It's good to abstain to make room for those things that bring us closer to Christ,” he said. “Serving others is one of those incarnational activities that reminds us who and whose we are. One can substitute any unnecessary expense for Starbucks, and I have changed it up. The important thing is for the giving-up to lead to giving.”
In a similar vein, the Catholic school where I teach has encouraged our students to give up something small — a bag of chips at lunch, a morning coffee, a trip to the vending machine after school — and to donate the money they would spend to a fund that the school uses to sponsor a child in Guatemala. Even small sacrifices can have big effects: the students’ spare change that was collected over the course of one week allowed the students and school to sponsor three kids in need for a whole year. Giving up a small luxury provided three people with the essentials of food, water, clothing, and education for an entire year.
I won’t be giving up chocolate this Lent. Instead, after prayer and soul-searching, I’m giving up the two things that have sucked up my time and enslaved my time and attention: streaming TV and checking my phone repeatedly throughout the day. I hope that by fasting from these small addictions, I can refocus on prayer and live more intentionally.
What will you give up to make your Lenten fast meaningful and fruitful?