I grew up Catholic, but you’d never know it based on my Lenten history. For decades, try as I might, I could never get the season right. Some years, I did too much. Other years, I did too little. And sometimes, I simply lost my mind. Like, the year when I gave up expressing opinions for Lent. Yes, I did that. Well, I sort of did that. I tried, but it didn’t work out so well. Fancy that.
There was also a Lent where I did a progressive fast. During week one, I gave up sweets. For week two, I gave up sweets and meat. The next week, sweets, meat, and dairy. By the time Good Friday arrived, I was basically eating like a tee-totaling, vegan Mormon Celiac on a diet. Or, to put it more accurately, I was eating like a miserable, crabby, total wench of a tee-totaling, vegan Mormon Celiac on a diet.
That was a special year for everyone.
The good news is that all those Lents—crashing, burning, banging wrecks that they were—didn’t go completely to waste. My own particular kind of Lenten crazy gave my friends lots of opportunities to offer things up. I think a few roommates actually did count living with me during Lent as their penance. Plus, eventually, I learned from my own mistakes, and stopped trying to win Lent—proving how holy I was by my ability to Sacrifice All the Things.
For the past decade or so, I’ve followed one simple rule when discerning my Lenten penances: Don’t take on any commitments that will lead me to commit mortal sin. It works. I drink my coffee in the morning, my “medicinal” beverages at night, and Lent in my house today is far more peaceful, sane, and spiritually fruitful than it was 10 years ago. Which I happen to think is just dandy.
If, however, you’re not into the whole peace, grace, joy thing, just pull a page from my old playbook. It’s not hard to win Lent the loser’s way. You just have to…
- Skip lunch every day despite your low blood sugar, then make your family pay for it at night. If they complain, tell them to, “Offer it up.”
- If you vowed to go to Mass every day for Lent, don’t miss a single Mass. Not a single one. For any reason. Don’t worry about the sick spouse left alone with the vomiting children. They’ll survive. You have a date with God.
- Compare your sacrifices to everyone else’s. If someone says they’re taking cold showers on Friday, use your most condescending voice to tell them that you take cold showers every day. And if you discover that a friend has offered up more than you, add a few additional penances to your Lenten roster. Don’t forget: Whoever has the most penances gets the most gold stars in heaven.
- Travel half way across the country to visit your parents. When you arrive and your mom offers you a piece of your favorite chocolate cake—the cake that she made especially for you—tell her you can’t have any because you gave up sweets for Lent. If you want to win Lent, sacrifice has to trump charity every time.
- Whine. All the time and everywhere. At work, at home, on Facebook. It’s crucial that everyone know how difficult it is for you to give up chocolate. After all, what’s the point of making a sacrifice, if nobody knows about it?
- Give up meat…or wheat…or dairy. Then, expect everyone who cooks for you for the next 40 days to cater to your penitential preferences. Never just eat what you’re served. I mean, what kind of penance is that?
- Gladly do the penances you choose, but ignore the ones God sends your way. Don’t offer up the costly car repairs, the gloomy weather, or the lingering head cold. Don’t accept correction at the office. Don’t turn the other cheek. Remember, Lent is all about how you think you need to grow in holiness. And you totally know best.
- Don’t be willing to change course mid-way through Lent. No matter how dysfunctional, mean-spirited, or ill one of your penances might make you, cling to it stubbornly. When salvation is on the line, there’s no room for reevaluation.
- Give up coffee or Green Goddess smoothies or whatever other food/drink keeps you sane and energized as you go about the business of your day. Who cares if you turn in sub-par work at the office or act like a stressed out nutcase at home. This is Lent! If it’s not stressful, it’s not working.
- Pick some completely unrealistic penance—like giving up opinions for Lent. Fail miserably at it before the end of the first week. Despair and spend the next 40 days complaining to your friends about what a rotten Lent you’re having.
- Leave God out of the decision-making process. Don’t pray about what you should give up. Don’t reflect seriously on how you need to grow and what spiritual practices might help with that. Don’t contemplate how you can become more spiritually and materially generous through prayer and almsgiving. And definitely don’t run your Lenten plan by a spiritual advisor or a wise friend. Just Sacrifice All the Things!