As far as I can recall, at least, the reading for Ash Wednesday is always the same: Jesus tells us to pray and to fast in secret. For those of us who are intentional about giving up something or taking up a practice related to the Lenten season, these words are appropriate reminders to ask ourselves about our motivations. In Lent, we are asked to fast, pray additionally, and to give to those in need. We also repent from our sins. My colleague Jim Keenan SJ names sin as a “failure to love,” an insightful way to understand what sin is: not a mere following of rules, or adherence to a technical duty, but a lack of love that can include both what we do that is wrong and what we fail to do that is good yet called for.
I look forward to Lent as a liturgical season because it gives me the chance to go inward and to look at my own motivations. What do I do that is motivated out of genuine love and a sense of freedom to want to offer my gifts to God and to God’s beloved ones? And what do I do that is motivated by a desire to please others, or to be loved or liked, or for some other end other than the good of others and for God? As a woman, like many other women I am also socialized to sometimes put the good of others ahead of myself and not to ask for what I need or desire. To fail to love ourselves well also is a failure to love, and so potentially a sin. As Aquinas argues, the self is the closest friend any of us will ever have, and so to love ourselves is good. Certainly we can sacrifice for others, give to others, forgive others, but this ought to be wedded to a sense of care for the dignity of oneself throughout.
For me, this idea of repenting from our failures to love cautions us against any Lenten practice that only continues our failures in new form. For example, if a person’s tendency is to self-aggrandizement, then giving up alcohol, meat, dairy, and cigarettes while telling everyone of one’s enormous sacrifices might only serve to bring the person deeper into self-aggrandizement. Or if the tendency is to give to others without regard for healthy self-regard, then deciding to further abnegate the self in Lent might not be so wise.
Instead, we can think about the question; what would help me to be a freer person, more fully who God wants me to be? And then; what habit or practice might help me to get there, or at least a bit closer? For example, I know a friend who one year who wanted to be less critical of others. So she gave up speaking aloud criticisms, in the hopes that it would change her attitude for the better. Is there some aspect of the common good or the welfare of others that I tend to ignore, but to which an ongoing action might habituate me to be more attentive? For example, I recall some colleagues a few years back taking up a carbon fast in order to keep attention on the human responsibility to address climate change.
Our focus might be large or small in scope, political or interpersonal, but what matters is that we sincerely bring ourselves before God, as we are, repentant of where we have fallen short, but also knowing our God is indeed “slow to anger and rich in kindness”? Where do we want to grow in greater kindness and love— so that we might grow in friendship and likeness with God? What does God gently call us and ask us to do so that we might be more receptive to the good gifts that God desires to offer us in Easter?