By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

Over the many seasons of my life I have entertained a wide range of attitudes regarding Lent.

I can recall my earliest elementary school years when it was an incredible opportunity to draw praise from parents and teachers alike. Those were the days in which we were called just to give up something. That wasn’t fun all by itself.

But I soon learned that bigger the apparent sacrifice I chose, the more my praises would be sung by parents and teachers alike. Ah hah! As a competitive example of the male gender, a big Lenten sacrifice inevitably provided me with an opportunity to shine.

All I had to do was resolve to give up something very good and very big. If the teacher, often a woman religious, asked us to share our intended sacrifices with the rest of the class, which often she did, as it also was an opportunity to garner the praise of our peers – perhaps even that especially cute girl two rows over.

Now that’s opportunity!

Bad heart

Obviously, below the surface my heart was not in the right place. And that shortcoming showed up soon enough. Because soon enough it occurred to me and my compatriots that in this little game of ego gratification we would eventually be expected to pay a price. We would actually have to live up to our initial intentions.

That’s when Lent started to be a pain.

It’s also why we so eagerly welcomed Sundays, when we were given a one-day reprieve from our foolhardy sacrifices.

Growing pain

After a few years of this we developed the maturity to actually anticipate the chore of abiding by any sacrifices we professed. That’s when Lent became a pain from the get-go – although I suppose more devout types continued to see the genuine opportunity of enduring 40 days without candy or soda, or whatever the “big thing” was that year.

For several years as I advanced through school, Lent continued to be a dreaded time of the year for me. My parents continued to demand some sacrifice from me, but I was a slacker through and through.

One year I said I was giving up eggs. That impressed my teacher but it didn’t impress my mom. She knew that I couldn’t stand the taste or texture of eggs and had never have eaten them since birth. So Mom insisted that I pick something else involving a bit more sacrifice. I can’t remember what it was, but I’m pretty sure I set the bar as low as my parents would permit.

And then nothing

After I left for college and then married and set up my own household, Lent basically meant nothing to me. I wasn’t even sure when it started and could not have cared less. My focus was on spring break – not to party but to add work hours. Maybe I went to Mass on Easter Sunday … or maybe not.

Yeah, I’m a “cradle convert” – someone who was brought up in the faith, left it, and then returned to its active practice some years later. My “conversion” wasn’t dramatic – either coming or going. I was losing interest in high school and just took advantage of the freedom that being away at college afforded me

When I started the slow path back, it was mostly so my worshipping at the Church of the Innerspring wouldn’t complicate my oldest child’s life. Keep it simple: Best dad set the same good example mom had always set. Gradually, over the years, opportunities to serve brought me further and further back into the fold.

Today I see Lent as an opportunity – but I clearly remember those days when it was just a pain in the lower back.

What about you?

What about you? Is Lent an opportunity or just a pain for you … or maybe a mix of both?

I had a friend once who was quite a drinker. (Actually, I’ve had more than one but let’s keep this story short and simple.) When it came to the tavern, he was a daily communicant. If he left his pickup’s motor running out back, it wasn’t because he was planning on a short stop. It was because this wasn’t his first stop and by now he was forgetting to turn it off.

Then every Lent he gave up beer and liquor – cold turkey.

He would still stop daily at an assortment of “establishments,” but just for the social interaction. He religiously ordered sodas. Oh, wait. There were the Sundays, when as A. E. Housman might say, he was quite himself again. But through the rest of the week for about six weeks he was as faithful and regular as Big Ben.

We all respected him for that. And for not a few of his friends, it was the only clue they had that Lent had come around the calendar again. 

We all appreciated that it was a huge sacrifice for him, down into the marrow in his bones or at least the cells of his liver. You could say it was as much a sacrifice for him as it was a holiday for his wife. But I never heard him complain. Maybe Lent kept him alive for a lot of years he wouldn’t have had without his seasonal temperance.

A new focus

By the time I met him my own spiritual emphasis had moved away from finding things to give up (yea!) to finding things to achieve (I can do that).

That’s when Lent became an opportunity for self-improvement for me.

If I needed to improve my health, I might promise to exercise more. If I needed to lose weight, I might try to eat more healthy foods and cut back on the junk foods. If I needed to sharpen my mind, I might try to read more.

Lent was also a time to address relational issues. If I was getting short with the kids, I could work on being more patient. If I had started taking my incredible wife for granted, I could look for little things to do to express my love. If one employee was driving me nuts, I could make an extra effort to be concerned and supportive.

Jesus? I’m sure he was in there somewhere.

A bishop’s insight

I had a friend once who was a bishop, and we co-hosted a radio program. On one program as Lent approached, he noted the common tendency for people to see Lent as a chance to improve themselves. I thought he was calling me out until he said it was a common tendency in our secularized culture.

He said we shouldn’t see Lent in that context. Instead, we should see Lent as an opportunity to draw closer to the heart and mind of Jesus.

I thought to myself, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” I figured an improvement is an improvement, no matter what our motivation.” But I didn’t say that on the air.

Good thing. Because I can finally see that the bishop was right. Today I see Lent pretty clear as my bishop-friend said we should – an opportunity to conform my heart and mind more closely to the heart and mind of Jesus.

What does that mean?

In my case it could mean a lot of things – because my life leaves me a whole lot of room to more closely conform. But I need a focus. So I’ll start with the heart – which I think we all should – where it means trying to be more humble.

As Ken Blanchard teaches, humility does not mean thinking less of myself; it means thinking of myself less.

It’s not about me

The one-line elevator message behind the concept of Servant Leadership is “it’s not about me.” Lent is an opportunity to make my thoughts and deeds conform more closely to that assertion.

What can I do to make myself less self-centered? Pope Francis warns us of the temptation to put our own comfort first – and every time I come across that warning I squirm a bit. Which is to admit, I’m pretty darn comfortable with my comfort.

I should do something about that. I should stretch a little and step out beyond my comfort zone. How? I’m not sure yet, but I’m thinking about it. As I write this, I’ve got eight days to come up with something. My two mandates for Lent this year: move out of my comfort zone and do something that makes me less self-centered.

Whatever I do in that regard, I do know that I’m going to make a serious effort to be more self-disciplined with my time and tasks. The point is not to improve myself, but to make better use of my time so I’ve got more time for others.

A time for both

Even as I’ve come to see Lent as my bishop-friend said I should, I think I have also resolved the question asked at the start of this: Is Lent a pain or an opportunity?

For me this year it will be both -- an opportunity to inflict a little pain on my pretty comfortable self.

It will be nothing masochistic to be sure. Not even close. Not even if I wanted to, which I don’t. We're talking healthy pain here.

Specifically, I’m talking a little healthy stretch out of my comfort zone. It’s about time.

And if it proves to be a cure for stiff muscles and sore bones, well then, a little self-improvement never did anybody any harm, did it?

Happy Lenting, dear friends.