Up here in the northern half of the planet, where Lent coincides
with the end of winter and the onset of spring, the imagery of rebirth and
rejuvenation accompanying these natural events carries a powerful message:
Shake off spiritual lethargy and be renewed in grace.
Unlike in the natural world, spiritual rebirth doesn’t take place
automatically. Effort on our part is necessary. “Lent” is the name we give the
deliberate process of spiritual renewal that the church particularly emphasizes
at this season.
A central part of it is the practice of self-denial through
which, paradoxically, we grow in self-possession in order to give ourselves
more perfectly to God. “Nothing is so likely to corrupt our hearts and to
seduce us from God, as to surround ourselves with comforts,” Cardinal John
Henry Newman said in a sermon on self-denial. Lent is a special, though hardly
exclusive, time for putting some of those comforts aside and focusing on God.
That is what things such as fasting and abstinence and “giving up
something for Lent” are meant to help us do. With that in mind, and without
pretending to any special knowledge drawn from personal experience in these
matters, let me suggest a few common sense rules for the practice of
self-denial in Lent.
First, don’t inflict your mortifications on other people. If
doing without something makes you short-tempered with the people around you,
work on controlling your temper first or else find something else you can deny
yourself without becoming a pain in the neck.
In the same vein, remember that self-denial is between you and
God. Your spiritual heroism, such as it is, shouldn’t be advertised. “Take care
not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them,” says Jesus —
specifically citing almsgiving, prayer and fasting — in the Ash Wednesday
reading from Matthew’s Gospel. God knows what you’re doing. That is enough.
Next, when looking for something to deny yourself, make it
something in your everyday experience. Consider concentrating on what some
spiritual directors refer to as your “predominant fault.”
If, for instance, your problem is laziness, try getting up 45
minutes early on weekdays in order to get to Mass. If it’s a tendency to waste
time, set a definite time for turning the TV on — and turning it off — and
stick to it. Use the time you’ve gained by not sitting in front of a screen to
help out around the house or maybe even read a good spiritual book.
Finally, make it a point often to remind yourself why it is
you’re practicing self-denial and even to pray about it. “We have to give
ourselves really, not just in word but in deed and truth,” St. Josemaria
Escriva once said. And giving ourselves to God and others requires that we
first possess ourselves — something that the discipline of Lenten self-denial
can help us to do.
As for how to proceed, Cardinal Newman calls attention to some
—Accept the daily opportunities that occur of yielding to others,
when you need not yield.
—Turn from ambitious thoughts, and (as far as you religiously
may) make resolves against taking on authority.
—Sell and give alms; therefore hate to spend money on yourself.
—Shut your ears to praise.
—Curb your tongue, and turn away your eye, lest you fall into
—Be up at prayer “a great while before day.”
Cardinal Newman adds, “So shall self-denial become natural to
you, and change come over you, gently and imperceptibly.”
Kind of like winter giving way to spring during Lent.
Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington and
author of American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall,
and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.