Saturday, March 18, 2006

"Giving Up Something" for Lent

Last night, during my abbreviated Saint Patrick’s Day celebration, I become involved with a couple of new friends in a discussion of Lent. It began with the numerous Catholic Bishops—“a third of all bishops” according to Monsignor Kevin W. Irwin, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.—who “publicly said people don't have to abstain from meat on St. Patrick's Day.” The conversation then moved on to the question, “What have you given up for Lent?”

I realize that I have not written much about Lent in this blog. At least, not nearly as much as I would have if I had still been actively pastoring a congregation or writing the theological-oriented newspaper column that I once wrote. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been personally involved in the Lenten season. I have.

When I hear people considering what to “give up” for Lent I always think of this story I heard from one of my ROTC instructors at the University of Kentucky:

This story took place at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, back in the days when hazing of Plebes was not only acceptable but the rule.

It was breakfast and one of the upper classmen informed the Plebes sitting at his table that they could not begin to eat until each had formally declared what he was giving up for Lent. Each Plebe, in turn, reported what he was sacrificing for Lent—even the Plebe who was Jewish—in sentences that began and ended with the word “Sir.”

All went well until they came to the last Plebe at the table. With a straight face and superb military comportment, the young man reported what he was giving up for Lent: “Sir, for Lent I am giving up celibacy. Sir!”

Whenever I hear people talking about “giving up” something for Lent, I remember that story. I also consider what I believe is the theology of Lent: a time of penitential preparation for Easter. Penitential refers to “penance”— an act of devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin. It provides for a 40-day fast (Sundays are excluded), in imitation of Jesus Christ's fasting in the wilderness. The “giving up” is related to fasting, which is one of the Lenten disciplines, which also include (but aren’t limited to) prayer, mediation, study, and charity.

It is this last that I link theologically and personally to fasting. Fasting—the abstinence from food or drink or both—is an ancient custom that has often been associated with ritualistic, mystical, ascetic, or other religious or ethical purposes. But in modern times it has also been used to benefit the one engaged in a fast in other, more individually profitable ways. For example, if I am going to “give up” eating deserts during Lent, I may reap a two-fold benefit: I save the money I would have spent on purchasing deserts and I (probably) lose weight. It is these benefits that I find so knotty in the typical way people fast during lent.

When the fasting—the “giving up”—primarily results in personal benefits, it doesn’t seem to coincide with the purpose of Lent. Of course, if one takes the money saved from giving up deserts—or, alcohol, DVD rentals, the purchase on non-essentials, etc.—and donates that to people in need, then it becomes closer to the idea that Lent is a penitential season.

Here is another consideration: rather than “giving up”—fasting—as the primary Lenten activity, what if one where to add something (other than the normal Lenten disciples I listed above) to their life? What if one were to actually give of themselves, of their talents and time, rather than avoid doing or partaking in something? And what if that giving was of benefit to other people—especially the marginal and those considered insignificant by the majority in our society?

For example, what if one were to spend time volunteering to dictate books for the blind? Or, working in a shelter for the homeless? Or, using their education for the benefit of others (an attorney could provide legal assistance to the poor; a builder could volunteer with Habitat for Humanity; a medical doctor could provide free medical care to the indigent or even join Doctors without Borders)? The fasting would be of one's time and talent: a few hours doing something for others rather than entertaining one's self.

I offer this as an alternative to "giving up something" for Lent. And I suggest that doing this can be more beneficial to one’s self and soul than skipping deserts. Consider the wisdom of these words:

Albert Schweitzer: Do something for somebody every day for which you do not get paid.

Sai Baba: Hands that help are holier than lips that pray.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man (Sic.) can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.

William Penn: I expect to pass through life but once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now; for I shall not pass this way again.

Alfred Adler: We can be cured of depression in only 14 days if every day we will try to think of how we can be helpful to others.


  1. Hi Nick ~~ Thanks so much for visiting Herons Nest and leaving words of encouragement. Also that great poem.

    This is a very interesting post, which
    gives an alternative to "giving up"
    for Lent. Probably a better idea ~~ to
    give of oneself. Good quotes also.
    Cheers, Merle.

  2. You make a good point, Saint Nick, whether one is a practicing Christian or not.

  3. Nick, are you writing IRL for something (newspaper, journal etc)?
    If not, you should.

    I am so going to Ireland for SPD one day.


  4. do u thnk what aa siad is true i been depressed evr since my bro went to iraq

  5. Well said. In the past I've gone the 40 days while giving something up, with mixed success, but I think your point about donating time to persons or things who are in need of them is a valid one.

  6. Great post! Well written and I understand it, which is more than I can say for the sermon I heard this morning.

  7. The fasting on one's time and talent is an excellent thought. ec

  8. Three days ago a good friend called with news that her 16 year old son had suffered a heart attack, died twice but finally was stabalized. Oxygen loss to his brain means he'll be relearning how to walk, dress, even feed himself.

    Maybe Lent isn't a time of deprivation so much as a time of getting in touch with what matters.

  9. Interesting concept. I like it.

  10. I've never practiced Lent too seriously, As a kid I said I'd quit biting my nails but halfway through that timespan it hit me that once Lent was over I'd start right over anyway, so I cut my "sacrifice" short.I guess I just personally find it hard to take Lent too seriously unless people actualy believe in what they're giving up. And if they did, then why only practice it for 40 days? I don't know where I'm going with this, but the post made me think. well done, lol

  11. I always thought it was just Catholics who fasted and "gave things up" for Lent.

  12. Merle—You’re welcome; I found a lot of similarities between “Herons Nest” and “Nick’s Bytes.” I’m adding a link to you as soon as I find the time.

    Maybe it’s because I worked so long as a social worker—“a professional altruist” as the author of a history of social workers called the profession—but giving of my self is deeply ingrained into who I am. Thus, the idea of that sort of “fasting” came naturally to me.

    Mike in Tucson—Thanks; I believe one need not be a believer of any religion to be able to give of one’s self to others.

    jd’s rose—If there is anything I could do to earn a living, it would be to write. When I lived in a small town in southern Indiana I did write a column for a small newspaper for about eleven years. Several of the columns were even picked up by others and republished. Now, if someone would just pay me to write I’d go into my old age a happy man!

    Jody—I don’t know if what Alfred Adler wrote is true of every form of depression; some depression is the result of chemical imbalances with us. However, I do believe that when we are depressed we ten to focus almost exclusively on our selves and our own needs and wants. If we are willing to reach out to others, we change the object of our focus and can change how we feel.

    Limpy—Thanks for the affirmation. I have been using this as a Lenten disciple for many years. Of course, I also do it the rest of the year, too. However, during Lent I generally focus intentionally of something, such as dictating books for the blind.
    Abby—Thanks. Since I didn’t hear it, I can’t comment on the sermon you heard this morning.

    Mreddie—Thank you; I appreciate your statement.

    Just Sayin’—That’s a terrible tragedy for your friend and her son. I pray he can eventually experience a full recovery. Yes, I think Lent is a time to get in touch with that which is important.

    Azsonofagun—Thanks, Rex.

    Sheeesh—Thanks, young lady! Your words—“the post made me think”—is one of the best compliments I have ever received.

    Squirl—Nope. Most mainline Protestant denominations follow the liturgical year and many of the same doctrinal elements as Roman Catholics. Of course, so do Orthodox Christians (except their calendar is a bit different).

  13. am I the only idiot who had to read the USMA story twice before I laughed?

    Pass me the bleach, I'm turning my hair blonde..

  14. Our priest used to tell us to give up something for lent- a bad habit, a predjudice, a pre-conceived notion…

  15. Nick, i love your ideas! I'd gladly volunteer my time for Lent :)

  16. Song—No need to dye your hair blonde! You’re the only one who has even commented on it!

    Anonymous—I can concur with your priest’s idea. My idea is to do something actively new. One might had the two ideas together. My experience as a therapist is that whenever we give up a habit, we leave a void and need to replace it with something else. Thus, for example, one could give up reading porn and replace it with working in a soap kitchen.

    Michelle—Thank you. As for you volunteering your time for Lent, if I read your blog correctly, your plate is fairly well filled as it is!